LORD SCOTT Oken sharpened the focus of the opera-eyes so that a particular pair of legs filled the frame. She was the tallest woman on the stage, and to Oken’s eye, she was Golden Hathor with all her graces, a joy to behold. Certainly, there was not another pair of legs so exquisite, white thighs shaped by riding wild Cossack ponies as a child. In his better moments, Oken regretted the power he had over her intentions. In other moments, he simply had to admit that he loved his work.
His attention was interrupted by a knock on the door to his private viewing booth. It would be unseemly for a man of his rank to leap at an interruption.
The dancers sank into their final pose amid a swirl of silk and pearls. The gentle knocking became more insistent. The booth was small and carefully secured, so Lord Oken had only to turn in his seat to unlatch the door behind him.
The theater manager peered around the door, with only his self-important face and fashionably trimmed beard visible. He reverently held out a velvet cushion with a leather scroll-case. The gold-wax seal was the explanation for the manager’s excited decision to interrupt a dance scene. Oken took the case, thanking him with a casual word. The manager gave such a deep bow that he had to retrieve his top hat with a sudden snatch, and he retreated, struggling to balance his hat and the cushion while bowing as he backed away.
Oken shut the door and latched it. He sat, looking down at the golden seal on the case, feeling the familiar tug of duty and awe invoked by that familiar and historical icon. The Queen of Egypt was thousands of leagues away at Pharaoh’s Palace in Memphis, yet she could ensnare him with such a simple gesture. The blare of brass instruments striking up the final strains sounded, but he did not look up.
Oken unclipped his watch fob from its gold chain, a small, enameled-gold Watch It Eye. He tapped the snake coiled in the inner corner of the Eye and the cover opened, revealing a magnifying lens. The signs of tampering on the gold-wax seal were slight yet unmistakable: indentations in the bottom edge. Someone had read the Queen’s message, then skillfully resealed the case.
Oken closed the Eye and returned it to the chain, then broke the seal and unrolled the scroll. He raised it to his nose and sniffed gently. The unique incense of Pharaoh’s Palace was faintly present, evoking the majesty and wonder of Memphis. He was an agent of the Egyptian Empire. That thought had more power over him than the lure of those long, long legs.
The presence of Lord Scott Oken is requested at the palace in Memphis, for a presentation to Pharaoh Djoser-George. Life! Health! Courage! On Famenoth 30, commencing at 8 of the clock.
The handwriting was Lady Khamanny’s formal secretarial hand, signed with the hieroglyphic signet of the palace. Underneath it, however, was a simple sentence in the Queen’s familiar hand: We are counting on you to be there to dance with us, Scott, since poor old Dozey says his knees just won’t take the strain! Sashetah Irene.
Oken returned the little papyrus roll to its case and slipped it into an inner pocket, resettling his jacket around the stiff shape with a graceful shrug. He was smiling.
A reply to the Queen’s message could wait until morning. Oken returned to his close-up view of the stage.
* * *
HE LEFT his fur-lined overcoat in the booth. The manager would send it to the embassy hotel. Street carriages were heated, and Natyra kept her apartment unusually warm. She claimed she did so because she could spend more time in the bathing pool in the center of her bedroom. “Water, it keeps my body ready for the next dance!” Oken believed, however, it was more likely that she preferred being nude. This thought kept him warm as he climbed the nine stories to her apartment via the back stair, unheated and unguarded, lit only by small and ancient windows admitting the streetlights.
Natyra Arkadyena Solovyova lived in a great, round room in the sky above Novgorod, at the top of a stone tower in a western wall of the royal palace. Her sponsor, the grand vizier of all Oesterreich, Nevski XXI, was generous. Her room was as luxurious as any in the main halls of the palace, where the vizier and his many wives lived. It was also quite private, in its remote tower above the city.
Lord Oken found the door at the top of the staircase also unguarded, as he had expected. He removed his left glove and rested his fingertips against the touch-points of the ornate figure in the central panel. The hidden circuits in the silver inlay responded only to bare skin. Oken felt, rather than heard, the slight tremble as the panel activated; then it divided down the center and silently slid apart. He had to bend his head down and to the side as he stepped through the portal that had opened in the door. He was taller than most.
There were candles everywhere in her apartment, in silver and alabaster candlesticks. He could smell the soft, warm-wax scent of candles that had, until only moments before, been lit. The dying smoke made a sweet, mournful fragrance that told him the candles had burned while she awaited his arrival. He had known that they would not be lit when he walked in.
Oken asked her about it once. She told him someone (she would never tell him who, or when or why) had used candle flame to hurt her, badly. She showed him the pale scar still lingering on her sweet white breast. Whoever it was had used her own candles to burn her until she screamed her throat raw and confessed to things that she had not done and had never thought of doing until those ideas were put into her head. She had adored candles and candlelight from the first time she had been carried—small and helpless, and loving of the arms that held her—into a temple ceremony of the divine Neith, she of the wick and the lamps. Natyra’s first dances on temple stages had been to this ancient divinity. Natyra loved candles, the waxy scent, the yellow orange glow, the simple magic of light and heat that arose from string and wax and oil. She could not let that night of torture turn her away from her divine guide, but she could never bear to have anyone share them with her. She lit candles only when alone.
Oken, upon hearing this sad confession, had gotten up from her bed and taken a fat green candle from the mantel and set it on her nightstand. When he lit it, he saw her face go pale and her lips tremble. She held her chin up, still proud, yet a cloudy fear touched her green eyes.
He did not touch the lit candle. He held his hands out beside it, with the firm, tanned flesh of the backs of his hands and wrists close to her.
“Burn me,” he said to her, firmly. “Burn me with the candle.”
Natyra shook her head. He could see the candlelight gleaming in her eyes and on the smooth, polished skin of her shaved head.
She stared at him, gauging his conviction, then took the candle and dripped hot wax onto the backs of his hands.
He let her drip more wax, until he saw something fierce and clean shine in her perfect face. With a cry of alarm, she put the candle back into its holder and pushed it away. Oken blew out the flame, watching her face in the sudden twilight. He used a bit of ice from his drink to chill the wax on his hands until it was brittle and fell away.
Natyra had tears in her eyes as she kissed his hands then, the soft, unburned insides of his wrists and his palms. They never spoke of it again. She did not light candles when he was there, but she trusted him.
Her trust hurt Oken more than the mild blisters on his hands. He was testing a theory, doing his job. What truly mattered was that he discover the identity of her contact in Novgorod, in the palace of the grand vizier of Oesterreich, who was leaking vital information to Bismarck in Turkistan, the only nation in open resistance to Egypt’s embrace.
* * *
THE TAPESTRY that concealed the hidden entrance to her apartment was drenched with the fragrance of incense, oils and candles. Oken was familiar now with that mingled scent of smoke and time and he felt his pulse quickening.
He paused with the corner of the tapestry’s fabric in one hand, gazing around, adjusting to the dim light. At the far side of the room, tall windows looked out over Novgorod. City lights created an orange glow in the night sky. Opposite the tapestry was a fireplace, originally built to burn whole trees at once, radiating warmth into the room from the complex flutings of a steel radiator. White peonies filled the mantel, masses of them in crystal vases set between miniature lotus columns.
Oken could see the gold and silver threads of the tapestry’s design reflected in the mirror above the mantel, making the divine faces of Isis and Osiris shine softly in the darkness. They seemed to be smiling down benignly at his face, reflected in the mirror as well. For an instant he felt himself to be a part of their eternal scene. He pushed the feeling aside to focus on the moment. However lovely the scene, this moment was not benign. He was here on a mission, weaving lies in search of a truth.
Natyra’s pale form was outlined by blue radiance as she floated comfortably in the bathwater with an ivory headrest supporting her slender neck and shaved head. She raised her glass to him in salute when he stepped into sight.
Oken strolled slowly toward the glowing pool and her magical presence. He circled the pool so that he could see every curve in the water, then he stopped beside the ivory headrest. The blue radiance emphasized the pattern of veins in her throat and breast. Her eyes were deeper green in this light, large and luminous, gazing up at him with sultry promise.
He dropped to one knee beside her upturned face. “My mum spent a lot of her wealth to make sure that I had a proper appreciation of classical art. You are a c...