She took two quick steps forward, smiling. “We’re in the valley now,” she said. “You can see – there, to either side-“
A crash and clatter behind her. She turned, startled.
Sa-Ramses’ writing kit had fallen to the ground, the box breaking open and scattering cakes of pigment through the small stones of the path. He stood ashen-faced, one hand clenched at his breast, the other stretched before him as his eyes swept upward along the vertical pillars of rock that formed the sides of the valley. The outstretched hand wavered and fell as he stared at the marks on a shaft of stone, halfway up the cliff wall. He took a faltering step backward.
Nefer heard him say something – a name, perhaps? She hurried back toward him. Had he injured himself while she was moving on ahead? Had his heart failed? Or – more prosaically, she thought – had he perhaps turned his ankle on a rock?
She stopped as he raised his head, gazing up along the cliff to one particular spot where the stone seemed somehow lighter. His gaze was frozen, withdrawn. His breath was coming raggedly through parted lips.
“Master Sa-Ramses?” she said.
He started at the sound of her voice and turned, dragging in a shaking breath. His eyes were shuttered for a moment, his hand clenched before him. “Mistress Nefer,” he said. His voice shook.
“What-” she stopped and amended herself. “Are you all right? Were you hurt in any way?”
“Stabbed to the heart…” The words were so low, she wasn’t sure she had heard them correctly. “I never expected to- I hadn’t known-” He collapsed to his knees, his eyes wet, and lowered his head, his shoulders braced. He doubled against the ground after a moment and covered his face.
She bent over him. “Is there any way I can help you?” she asked, her outstretched hand inches from his shoulder. She stopped. He was usually so composed… To overwhelm him with offers of assistance would hurt his pride. She moved away toward some larger rocks and sat down, her hands folded before her.
He was looking up along the cliff again, tears spilling down his cheeks. As she watched he turned and stared down the channel of the Valley. He seemed to be looking along the pathway that led from this back spot to the royal necropolis’ formal entry from the great mortuary temples. His mouth tightened; he shook his head and slumped where he knelt for the space of a long breath, the back of one hand to his eyes.
And then he pushed to his feet and straightened, turning toward her, his expression nearly composed once more. His foot struck the writing box. He looked down at it, knelt and began to gather the brushes, the pigments, his movements slow with exhaustion.
She came forward to help him.
He reassembled the box,in silence closed it, set it in the satchel at his shoulder, and sat back on his heels, his eyes lowered. “I am ashamed…”
“There is no reason to be,” she said.
“I never meant to-to trouble you.”
“You didn’t. I’m glad you aren’t hurt.”
“No,” he said. “Not hurt. Not me. If only it had been me…”
She looked at him.
He dried his eyes with his sleeve and tried to smile. “Old memories,” he said. “Some not so old…”
She located a cake of dried red pigment and offered it to him. “A death?”
“My son.” The words were barely spoken. “My first child. I never knew until late. Now he’s locked away in the dark, in a jumble of grave-goods, and I never even had the chance to-” He closed his eyes, opened them, and rose, the back of his hand to his eyes again. “I was taken unawares just now. I’ll be fine.” His voice shook. “I’m sorry I subjected you to this.”
Her expression eased. “You needn’t apologize,” she said. “I have felt grief, myself… I come this way, sometimes. So quiet and beautiful… It’s peaceful, though so many are buried here. And it is a good place, I can feel it.”
She remembered his words: locked away. “Tombs contain what we, the living, put in them,” she said. “Stored by us. Those who are buried have no need of those things. They have moved beyond this world into the Land of the West.” She looked at him. “Do you know the old saying:
Sa-Ramses’ eyes filled again, but his expression was no longer frozen. He swore silently, struggling to master himself, and looked up at her after a moment with almost his usual calm.
The day was beginning to fade. Looking over her shoulder down the line of the valley to the town, she could catch the smell of cooking fires in the distance. Evening would soon be blooming out of the approaching sunset. But it was still light, and he was still suffering.
She turned back to him. “It’s growing late,” she said. “Are you ready to return to the village, Master Sa-Ramses? Or would you care to walk with me a little longer and enjoy the afternoon? A longer path borders the cliffs. There are some beautiful views of the river and of Thebes beyond it. It is a good way to go and… and collect oneself, as I have discovered.”
He looked down at his hands, loosely clasped on his knees. “Collect,” he repeated almost silently. “Yes. If we may.”
“I’ll show you my favorite views,” she said as he pushed himself to his feet. “It is beautiful. And I have found it to be healing.”
He nodded and offered his arm. “We’ll do that,” he said.
She set her hand in the bend of his elbow and then smiled up at him. “You will enjoy the path.”
A smile warmed his tired face. “Thank you,” he said. “With all my heart.”
“Sometimes the past takes us unaware.” He fell silent, looking out over the Nile. He looked back at her after a moment. “It’s restful to be quiet,” he said. “Away from the noise of life. It give our hearts a chance to…to heal.”
“Your wife?” she guessed.
His smile gentled and faded. “No,” he said. “My wife died last year, just at this time. I miss her…very dearly.”
“I am sorry,” Nefer said.
“We try to prepare for these things… We seldom succeed.” He saw her expression. “She died in childbirth,” he said. “She and the baby both. We had not expected a baby at our ages.”
She was gazing up at him with an arrested expression, her eyes bright in the sunset.
“Tears?” he said. “My dear! We said our farewells as she died.”
She shook her head and smiled up at him after a moment, laughing a little as she brushed at her eyes. “But it does not take away the loss.”
“Nor does it take away the life we had together. I was fortunate to have had her.”
She looked down and away from the shine of tears. “The sunset is beautiful,” she said. “Let us enjoy it.”
He gazed down at her for a moment, caught by a fleeting likeness. His Tuia had had such an expression of courage, compassion and humor. He tucked her hand in his arm. “It is beautiful,” he agreed. “We could walk along the path overlooking the river.”
She looked down. “You are giving me the chance to collect myself,” she said.
“If you wish.” He retrieved his spear and waited for her. “You did as much for me.”
** ** **
They took the ridge path, looking at the night sky, reflected in the river. A light breeze was rippling the water, sending the lights shimmering. There was no need to speak. The constellations rose higher in the sky, the Path of the Crocodile bright against the rich night fabric.
She spoke finally. “Were there jackals outside, then?”
“There were,” he said.
“They would not have attacked me.”
“You seem sure of that. Could you have fought them off if they had ?”
“I would have tried.”
“And so I stayed,” he said. “Besides…”
He looked down at her. “Besides,” he said quietly, “You stayed with me that whole afternoon.”
She lowered her eyes. “How could I not? I know that way of feeling, of living. It is hard…”
The moon was beginning to lighten the eastern horizon. They watched it come curving slowly into the sky.
“It is late,” she said. “This place is no longer as safe as it was… Let’s go back.”
They did not speak as they went along the path. He offered his hand to help her over some rough spots in the track; she did not release him. They moved together in silence, pausing to look down over the lights of the town toward the distant shimmer of the Nile. They moved along in silence, the distant beauty of the stars made talk unnecessary.
They paused at the wall of the village.
“It’s quiet now,” he said.
Nefer looked along the dark streets. “They’re asleep,” she said. “We tarried a long time.”
He smiled and shook his head. “Time changes from moment to moment, as I’ve discovered. Swift as a torrent, then an agony of slowness. One moment life stretches before you into eternity – and the next you find that the years have passed, leaving you wondering where they went.” He looked at the dark windows. “But they aren’t likely to look at us and wonder what we’ve been up to.”
“I don’t care what they think,” she said.
“You should,” he countered. “You can’t live a lie – and you don’t want a lie to color your reputation.”
She stopped and faced him. “Do you care?”
“Of course I do.”
She turned to him when she reached her house. “Answer me this,” she said. “Have you settled things in your heart?”
He smiled ruefully. “I hardly know how I feel about many things,” he admitted. “This has been a time for remembering, for me. And the memories have not been easy.”
They were at her doorway. There were so many things to say, and no words with which to say them. She had the breathless feeling that time was running out. She turned, facing him full. Her hands rose to his shoulders, settled there, feeling the reality of strength and, at the same time, the weariness of one who has fought a hard battle. “Stay with me tonight,” she said.
His frown appeared for a moment. “I did not expect to be invited in simply because I escorted you home,” he said.
She lifted her chin and looked at him. “The invitation was not issued because I wished to pay you for keeping nonexistent jackals at bay,” she said. “And I cannot imagine that a man of your quality would expect such a payment, no matter what service was rendered.”
His expression was an odd mixture of regret and assent. “I can promise nothing,” he said.
“I am not asking for promises,” she said. “I only want your company through this night.”
“For kindness’ sake?” he asked.
She smiled more deeply. “No,” she said. “Because I love you.’
“Nefer – ” He looked down and away from her. “Please understand: I can’t make any promises, ever.”
“I need no promise,” she returned. “No keepsake to treasure. Only your company this night. I know it can’t be for long. Our lives are moving apart. What drew you here is losing its strength, and I think you will soon be gone from my life. But during this time that we have been together I have come to love you.”
He raised his eyes to hers; she caught a lurking smile and returned it.
“No promise,” he said. “Why?”
“I love you, that is all,” she said. “How could I not?”
He looked down at her, at the curve of her mouth, the smiling eyes that were so like Tuia’s, gone now for a year. Shadows, but so sadly mourned and missed. And this woman – so calm and kind, so gallant – And, he realized, dear to him now…
He kissed her.
He closed his eyes for a moment, willing himself to face the image and consider it.
What was in there? Furniture, food, equipment, a statue, a coffin…a…body, no longer used.
No longer used.
Then why were they there?
Because we need to put them there, he thought to himself. Because we need to be able to say, ‘I did this for him because I loved him so much. I wanted him to have the best that I could bring, even though I know… Though I know that the Blest are happy in the land of the Blest’.
Gazing up the cliff face with the eyes of his heart he seemed to see the interior of the tomb blaze into light, and through the rock he could see his son – in the living, blessed flesh of the West – rising up through the boundaries of the tomb, more solid than the stone, brighter than the starlight… And he seemed to see him fade, as though he had stepped into another room.
Gone from that space, but not departed from being… Could it be? It was hard to grasp, hard to imagine, but he stared, dazzled, at the star-filled sky, working it through. Not departed from being, but nevertheless gone, never again to be met, smiled at, embraced, in this life. It was a farewell, and painful for all its reassuring nature. He closed his eyes upon tears.
Warmth beside him, the scent of lotus. Nefer.
“Nefer,” he said, his eyes still full of stars. “You came.”
He could feel her hesitation. “I saw you leave,” she said. “I was concerned.”
He looked at her, remembering. “About me?” he asked. “But why?”
“I told you,” she said. “I love you…” She paused, her hand almost touching his face, but pausing just short of the contact. “Has the path reached its end, then?” she asked.
He smiled at the cliffs. “It has,” he said. He looked at her profile, silver in the starlight that flashed from her eyes as she turned toward him. A slight, indrawn breath… The gentle touch of her hand against his face.
“Oh, my dear,” she said.
His hand rose to cover hers. “He isn’t here,” he said. “He isn’t locked away in the darkness. That thought had…troubled me.” He looked down again. “But he isn’t near me any more.”
She said carefully, “Is it another death, then?”
He considered. “No,” he said at last. “In this life loved ones leave, never to be seen again. Or not in years… It isn’t the same.” He looked over at her. “Can you understand me?”
“I believe I can,” she said.
“It’s sad for those of us left behind,” he said. “The black-eyed little boy who ran along the river and wanted to drive my horses is no more even though the man that boy grew into is still walking the earth.”
“There are compensations for that,” Nefer said.
“So I have seen,” he said. “And yet, much though I love the man that little boy became, I miss the little boy, and wish I could hold him on my lap and listen with my knowledge that the precious moments will soon be gone forever.”
A wind rose, feathering cold and crisp along his cheekbones. He rose and held out his hand to her. “It is late,” he said. “And there may well be things to fear along this path if we linger.”
She took his hand and let him pull her to her feet. Facing him, she looked up at him. “Is your heart whole now?” she said.
“Not yet,” he said. “But it will be. Soon. It is nearly time for me to leave.” He took her hand between his. “Nefer,” he said.
She looked up at him, her hand at his cheek again.
“You gave me love and comfort when I was lost,” he said. “I accepted it and returned it wholeheartedly. We must part soon, I know. But if there is a child-“
She met his gaze.
“I will acknowledge it,” he said. “And I will provide for it and for you and your family.”
She frowned and looked away for a moment. “I have not asked for that.”
He released her hand. “I must, Nefer,” he said. “No man should do otherwise.” His gaze sharpened as she hesitated. “I promise: I can support my children.”
Her eyes met his, and she nodded. “I will accept that,” she said. “If there is a child I will love it and raise it well and teach it to honor its father.”
“Will it know that it came about through love and kindness, not through a moment’s passion?” he asked quietly.
She met his gaze for a long moment and then moved into his arms. “I will tell the child when it is time,” she said. “I promise you.”
He unknotted the cord of the necklace and drew it from inside his tunic. He offered it to her, warm from the touch of his heart. “This is the first Necklace of Honor that I won when I was younger. Please: take it and keep it as a token of my promise.”
She stared at it, feeling its weight, the warmth of the gold. “The first?” she said. “Was there more?”
“There was,” he said. “Horemheb was a fighting king, and I served under him. Listen to me: I’m giving this to you. It will speak for you if I am somehow not able to. And if you or those you love are ever in need it can be broken apart and sold. Will you take it?”
She lifted the necklace in her hands. It was heavy, the five cylindrical strands draping over her fingers. She then raised her head to look straight into his eyes. “Who are you?” she asked. She saw the shift in his expression. “No. What you tell me won’t change the way I feel about you. But – who are you?”
He smiled ruefully at her. “I was named Seti for my grandfather,” he said. “My father’s name was Ramesses.”
“Sa-Ramses,” she said, half to herself.
He continued quietly, “I was a soldier for many years. And I am a scribe.”
She raised her eyes to his. “And you are Pharaoh,” she said.
He lowered his head. “I’m sorry, Nefer,” he said. “I couldn’t -” He paused. “I never meant – “
She frowned at the necklace and then at him. “‘Never meant’ – what?” she asked. “Never meant to behave like the man that you are and make me love you because of your kindness and courage? Never meant to be a friend to me – and a friend and protector to this town?”
She touched his face, smiling as his hand rose to cover hers. “There has never been any shame attached to you,” she said. “Or to the love I’ve felt for you. Never.”
He looked away.
“My dear! I do believe I’ve embarrassed you.”
“I have known worse embarrassment than hearing a beautiful woman tell me that she loves me.”
“Were there other women?”
“Before my wife? Perhaps one. I was very young… Only you, afterward. Will you take the necklace?”
She raised her eyes from the Necklace of Honor and smiled up at him. “I will take it,” she said. “And I tell you now that I will always love you, whatever the future brings. And I will think of you with contentment over the years.” Her eyes were wide in the night. “I’ll miss you.”
“I will miss you, too, ‘Beautiful one’,” he said.
She raised her hand to stroke through his hair as the setting sun seemed to paint the old hills and valleys rose and gold below the stars. “But you are not leaving yet,” she said as she drew his face down to hers.
“No,” he said with an answering smile. “Not just yet.”
The doors opened just then, and a man stepped inside. The children stopped for the time it took to draw long breaths-
“Grandsire!” Hori dropped the ball and ran to his grandfather, who dropped to his knees and opened his arms. “Grandsire! You’re back! I missed you!”
Seti gathered the boy and held him long enough to bury his face against his hair. His eyes were bright as he drew away. “Yes, I’m back,” he said.
“Where were you?” Hori demanded, opening his black eyes wide and snuggling closer for a moment. “You were gone forever!”
“I was traveling.” Seti pushed to his feet with Hori in his arms as his second son hurried down the aisle toward him. “It was a long journey.”
Ramesses stopped before his father, scanning him, tallying the changes.
Seti’s smile dimmed a little. “I had to go, Sesse,” he said as he kissed Hori and set him on the ground. “Your brother…”
“I know,” Ramesses said.
Seti’s hands rose to to grip his son’s shoulders. “I believe you do,” he said before pulling his son to him for a long embrace.