Ardeth Bey sat on one of the spindly-legged chairs in the breakfast room of Shepheard's Hotel and tried his best to be inconspicuous. From the glances he received from the other patrons, it was patently clear that he was failing in the attempt.
He cleared his throat and rustled the newspaper upwards to cover his face. He stared at the English words and tried to ignore the fact that his midnight-black hair was loose, tumbled over his shoulders. He tried to ignore the fact that he was the only person here to be sporting tattoos upon his face. He tried to ignore the fact that his skin was several shades darker than any other person in this room, except for the hotel staff.
A voice at his elbow made him glance up. He focused on a waiter, a man of about his own age, who was dressed neatly in the hotel livery with a black-tasselled red fez perched atop his head.
"Excuse me," the waiter said, and then he paused before he added, "sir."
Ardeth kept his expression neutral. "Yes?"
The face beneath the fez was just as stony. "Perhaps sir would like to look at the breakfast selection." The waiter flicked his fingers towards the menu placed in the centre of the table. "Would sir like some tea or coffee while he waits?"
"Yes. Please." Ardeth folded the newspaper into squares. It made a noise so loud that he was sure that everybody in the room was staring at him. When he'd set the newspaper onto the chair beside him, he realised that the waiter was still standing there. Puzzled, Ardeth said in Arabic, "What is it?"
The waiter replied in English. "Tea or coffee, sir?"
"Very good, sir." The waiter almost bowed, but then thought better of it and hurried away to bring the order.
Ardeth sighed and picked up the printed and embossed card that detailed the variety of foodstuffs available for breaking one's fast. As he was wondering precisely what went into devilled eggs to make them worthy of the name, Jonathan entered the breakfast room and sat down at the chair opposite.
It was a very subdued greeting. Ardeth handed over the menu and looked at Jonathan with concern. "God give you a good day. Are you well?"
"Actually, now you come to mention it…" Jonathan went pink and studied the menu with more attention than it deserved. "I'm a bit sore."
Ardeth's voice was loud enough to carry over to the next few tables, and conversation there was momentarily suspended as guests slanted curious glances in their direction.
"Yes," Jonathan said, equally as loudly as he leaned back in his chair, giving Ardeth a furious, embarrassed look, "I never knew that, er, riding a camel would inflict such injury on my, ah, delicate regions."
Ardeth stared at him, uncomprehending; and then he understood and broke into easy laughter. "Yes, yes. Camels are terrible, intransigent beasts. They must be broken in slowly, taught to respect the crop and not to fear it. But they are very hardy creatures. When properly tamed, they can be ridden for hours without the slightest discomfort to either party. In fact, it becomes quite pleasant…"
Jonathan's pink cheeks turned a fiery red and then puce as he tried to control himself. He appeared not to know what to do with his hands. He discarded the menu, turned over the knife and fork several times upon the tablecloth, and then he coughed and crossed his legs at the knee.
"Oh, look. Tea," he said with relief, nodding at the approaching waiter. "Did you order breakfast yet, Ardeth, old man? I've got such an appetite, I swear I could eat a horse."
"A horse, or a camel?"
"I don't think that camels would taste particularly nice, actually."
Ardeth tried to keep a straight face. "You are wrong. When well-muscled and lean, they are quite delicious."
Jonathan mumbled a reply and busied himself with his teacup. As the tea was poured, he took an appreciative sniff and said, "Ah, Earl Grey. The great restorative."
"I was not aware that you needed restoring." Ardeth prodded at the silver coffeepot and then lifted the lid. "Your energy seemed indefatigable to me."
Jonathan coughed as he nearly slopped hot tea down his shirt. "Bloody bit of lemon," he said with a laugh when the waiter came forwards solicitously. He put the cup down in its saucer and snatched up the menu again as a distraction. "Breakfast, breakfast… Oh, just give us two full English breakfasts, please. But no pork for Mr Bey. You know."
They sat in silence for a moment after the waiter had gone. Ardeth reached across for the coffeepot and poured himself a cup. He watched as Jonathan picked up the newspaper and browsed through the articles on the front page. When Jonathan's brow furrowed and he made 'hmm' noises to express dissatisfaction at whatever story was told in the newspaper, Ardeth wondered if it were not instead a comment on him – and what they had done together the night before.
He sipped at the coffee and turned his face away with a grimace of distaste.
Jonathan looked up, peeping over the top of the newspaper. "What is it? Ah, I know – cream. Here. Have some cream. And sugar, too. Coffee without either sugar or cream is absolutely frightful."
Ardeth heaved a sigh and put down his cup. This coffee, French or Italian or whatever origin it had said on the menu, had nothing on the strong, harsh coffee the Med-Jai brewed over their campfires. For a moment, sitting in this sumptuous room in Cairo's most elegant hotel, Ardeth felt a sharp desire to be home amongst the dark tents of the Med-Jai encampment.
Jonathan rustled the newspaper, and hid behind it once more.
Ardeth had a brief image of taking it outside and using it as kindling. Then maybe the Englishman would look at him; would talk using plain speech about what had passed between them. He thought of the black coffee that he would make over such a fire, of his tent with its spread carpets and soft cushions: a place to relax, a place to seduce.
Yes, it would be very different to last night, to the unfamiliar European beds with their layers of netting and sheets and blankets. More nest than bed, he had thought as he laid Jonathan down upon the mattress and stripped him of the fussy Western clothes. He had heard it said that the English were repressed when it came to matters of sexuality, but Jonathan had come alive for him as soon as he had shed his Western skin. Ardeth had been surprised and delighted – and hungry for more.
But that had been last night. Now it seemed as though nothing had happened, and all that was left was the lingering scent of European coffee grounds and the desire to go home, back to the desert.
"I say, look at this," Jonathan said, lowering the newspaper slightly to nod towards an article that Ardeth had no intention of reading upside-down.
Ardeth rearranged his skirts across his knees. "What does it say?"
"It's about Evie." He sounded annoyed. "Those blasted Bembridge Scholars! They say she's too inexperienced to run a dig, even a minor one – that her methods are slapdash and silly. Really, what absolute rot! People say the cruellest things, sometimes. And not just about Evie, either! No, not just her – I mean, the other day somebody in the Royal Society called me a dilettante."
"Yes?" Jonathan stared at Ardeth. "Do you even know what a dilettante is?"
This time Ardeth smiled. "Yes."
Jonathan shook his head. "Good grief." He rustled the newspaper again. "They say I know nothing about antiquity. I do, you know. Well, I know I do. It wasn't just Evie who got all the brains. I have a couple, too. I mean, I know enough about most things…"
Ardeth nodded, serious again. "Yes. You know how to get into trouble."
"I… I do not! That sort of just happens. You know, the way that some people are naturally lucky, they always bet on the right horse and they always get the prettiest girl, that sort of thing. And me? Well, I seem to get into trouble. Completely accidentally. Absolutely not on purpose. It just happens."
"Of course. It is as Allah wills."
"Do you really think so?" Jonathan put down the newspaper and looked at Ardeth with appeal. "I say, maybe I should convert to Islam or something."
"Please, do not."
"What, is my soul not good enough?"
Ardeth hid a smile. "Allah embraces even the soul of a dilettante."
"There's that word again." Jonathan wrinkled his nose. "Ardeth. What does it mean, exactly? Because I don't like half-measures, or not knowing: that sort of thing. It makes me all… twitchy."
Ardeth leaned forwards. "You told me last night that you could speak French."
"I can," Jonathan assured him with pride. "I can converse with maitre d's and I know my cheval from my cheveux… I think."
"Horse and hair."
"Yes. Did you ever wonder what 'horsehair' would be in French? Chevalcheveux. Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?"
Ardeth laughed and sat back in his chair as the waiter arrived to serve them breakfast. "Now I know that you are a dilettante in the language of the French."
"No, I'm English." Jonathan picked up his knife and fork, ready to attack the scrambled eggs heaped on one side of his plate. "And being English means that we don't have to learn any other language in the world, and that includes French."
"But it excludes ancient Egyptian," Ardeth pointed out as he experimentally poked a fork-prong into a fried tomato. "You managed to read the hieroglyphs on the Book of the Dead."
"Oh, pshaw, well, you know. I try to be modest, but sometimes…" Jonathan waved his own fork casually in the air.
"But sometimes you are too modest," Ardeth said, his voice low.
"Yes, I – Wait. What do you mean by that?" Jonathan looked him, curious and a little suspicious.
"It means you are avoiding the real issue here."
"Real issue? What real issue? The one about being a dilettante or the one about what the French is for 'horsehair'?"
Ardeth sighed and lifted his hands. "I will not force you into speech."
"There's no need to force me into anything, actually," Jonathan said a little stiffly. He put down his cutlery, a sure sign that the conversation now had his full attention. "It's just that… Well. I don't know what to say."
"I have noticed that about the English." Ardeth smiled to show that he wasn't being unkind. "The Americans… They speak too much, and expect others to understand. They expect that we will sieve meaning from their fall of words. But the English – ah, the English speak too little, and expect others to build mountain ranges from their silence."
Jonathan blinked. "That sounds rather poetic."
Ardeth inclined his head. His eyes gleamed with mischief. "Shall I put words into your mouth, Jonathan Carnahan?"
"Ah, um…" Jonathan looked around wildly in case anybody could overhear. "I don't think that would be a good idea. Not here. Not now."
"You are ashamed of the things you said to me last night?"
"No. No, absolutely not. It's just that… Oh, bugger." He shoved aside his plate, put his head in his hands, and slumped onto the table for a moment. With his face still hidden, addressing the tablecloth beneath him, he said, "It's always difficult to know what to say after the – the first time."
Ardeth sat forwards. "It is? I thought that things would become easier."
"Well, no, they don't, actually. Not for me," Jonathan groaned. "You know, it's much easier slaying millennia-old undead walking cursed corpses than it is to deal with – with -"
"With…?" Ardeth prompted.
"Then," Ardeth said as delicately as he could, searching for the way to put into words one of the prejudices he could see all too clearly in the breakfast room, "is it difficult because I am not of your race?"
"What? Oh." Jonathan sat back in his chair and shook his head. He looked tired, suddenly, as if the events of the previous night had just caught up with him. "No, no, Ardeth. I couldn't play that card even if I were a cad enough to want to. I'm half-Egyptian myself, you see, so it'd be bad form for me to use that against you."
He sat quietly for a moment, examining the contents of his breakfast plate as if it was a piece of art, and then he said brightly, "Mind you, there's probably something to be said about you being a Med-Jai. I mean, trouble seems to follow you around like a bad smell."
"Trouble follows me?" Ardeth raised his eyebrows in polite disbelief. "Forgive me, but I think rather that it follows you."
"That's earthly trouble. I can handle that. I was talking about unearthly trouble. You know, that could really become an issue in a relationship."
"Relationship?" Ardeth jumped on the word.
"Oh. Damn. Yes." Jonathan blushed. "I mean… Well. You didn't think that I did this sort of thing often, did you? Because I don't. And, you see, if we were going to do it again – if you wanted to do it again, then…"
"I would like to do it again," Ardeth assured him.
"Stop interrupting me when I'm nervous. I'll never be able to finish a sentence with you saying things back to me. This is a monologue, damn it: respect the monologue!"
"Good. As I was saying: if we were going to do this sort of thing again – because it was a very nice sort of thing, a most enjoyable sort of thing – then, well, I would like to feel a little more…"
Jonathan paused, searching for the right word.
"Secure?" Ardeth offered.
Jonathan slapped his hand down onto the table, rattling the teacups. "Secure. Yes. That's the one. I'd like to be more secure. And that means a – a relationship." His smile faded, then. "Oh, God. Did I just say that I wanted a relationship?"
"Yes." Ardeth grinned. "With me."
"Well." He blinked, as if trying out the idea in his mind. "That's not something I say everyday."
"You see? You are not a dilettante, then."
"That's nice to know." Jonathan smiled at him. "So, what does 'dilettante' mean?"
Ardeth pushed his breakfast plate to one side. "It's Italian."
"You said it was French."
"Does it matter?"
Jonathan considered for a moment. "Well… No. I suppose not. Unless you think I am a dilettante, of course. Because then I'd have to make more of an effort to be one. You know, like an eccentric person becomes more eccentric if people point them out on the street…"
"Or a man with a reputation as a good lover tries to improve his technique or his stamina?"
Jonathan coughed, his cheeks turning pink again. "Yes. Like that."
"Such a man fools only himself."
"I wouldn't know."
"No," said Ardeth with a smile. "And you don't need to know, either."