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Oath Bound -- Blood and Gold

It's time for a preview of Oath Bound, the fifth Order of the Air book. In which we join Jerry and Willi in Alexandria! I'd love to hear what you guys think.

There was a sound behind and Jerry stopped, leaning on his cane. Willi took two more steps before he saw that Jerry was not with him and halted as well, looking back.

The sound came again, an almost silent footfall in the shadows behind. And then it stopped. In the darkness of a doorway down the street there was a slightly darker form, a man watching out of the night.

"What's wrong?" Willi asked quietly.

"We're being followed," Jerry said.

Willi gave him a quick, worried look. This was not a particularly dangerous neighborhood, but there were always thieves. Any city had thugs who looked for someone who appeared prosperous. The best way to stay out of trouble would be to run. Unfortunately that was out of the question for Jerry, and a one-legged man was a vulnerable target for a thief.

"There are two of us," Willi said quietly.

Which was true. Perhaps the man following them would hesitate to accost a double target. Unless he was armed. Which Jerry was too. He'd shot a robber in cold blood before, in Los Angeles six years ago. When you can't run and you can't hold your own hand to hand, the only thing to do is shoot first. Jerry eased his hand into the interior pocket of his jacket where he carried a .22 caliber pistol.

The man down the street moved. He was a big man, his face obscured by a keffiyeh. He wore a plain gallibaya like a working man, and even in the darkened street it was clear that it was stained and tattered. A desperate man, Jerry thought. He raised the barrel of the gun.

Willi reached for his arm, appalled. "You cannot shoot a man who has not threatened us!" he whispered urgently.

Exasperated, Jerry lifted the gun into the faint light. "What do you want?" he called out clearly in Arabic.

The man held his hands out from his sides. "To speak with you, Dr. Ballard," he said in English, a very familiar voice incongruous in these circumstances. It couldn't be…

"Iskinder?" Jerry said incredulously.

The man took another step forward, out of the shadow of the doorway. "I have been trying for a full day to catch you not in a public place. Now put the gun away, Jerry. I have trouble enough without your marksmanship riddling me with bullets."

It was clearly Iskinder's voice, though why in the world Iskinder, a prince of Ethiopia and a very wealthy man, was doing sneaking around Alexandria dressed as an Egyptian peasant, was an excellent question.

"You know this man?" Willi said.

Jerry lowered the gun as Iskinder approached. "Absolutely. He's my oldest friend."

He looked thinner and there was a hesitation to his step, but it was unmistakably Iskinder's smile. "Jerry."

Iskinder reached out to embrace him, and Jerry returned it awkwardly with cane and gun, feeling the sudden flinch as Jerry's arm passed along his side. "Are you hurt?"

"Stabbed," Iskinder said. "And admittedly it's rather painful, so please don't thump me." He stepped back. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to get you on your own? I thought I'd have to risk it tonight even though you had one man with you because otherwise I'd never manage."

"Stabbed?" Jerry put the gun in his pocket. "Stabbed how? Oh, and this is my associate, Dr. Radke. Willi, this is Iskinder." He gave Iskinder a look which he hoped conveyed that Willi was all right, and possibly more than just his associate. Iskinder could add that up. He'd covered for Jerry in college decades ago, and more than once since then.

"Pleased to meet you," Willi said bemusedly, apparently confused by the news that Jerry's oldest friend was an Egyptian peasant.

"We need to get off the street," Iskinder said, glancing about. "You are staying near here?"

"Yes, but…." Willi began.

"What is this about?" Jerry asked. "Iskinder, what kind of trouble are you in?"

"I'll tell you when we're off the street," Iskinder replied.

Their rooms were only another block away, a third floor flat with two bedrooms and a tiny sitting room. Iskinder pulled the shades down before Jerry turned on the electric lights. Willi bolted the door as soon as Jerry was inside.

"Is someone following you?" Jerry asked.

"I don't know," Iskinder said. Here, in the light, the changes in him were startling. Not only was he positively thin, but his face was creased with care, his black hair graying at the temples.

"What's happened?" Jerry said.

Iskinder raised one eyebrow. "Surely you've heard that the Italians have invaded Ethiopia?"

"A border incident according to the papers," Jerry replied, feeling a furious flush rise to his face.

"No, my friend," Iskinder said gravely. "It's a war. This is not a matter like Walwal last year, a skirmish over a border town. This is an invasion, a three pronged attack deep into our territory. When I left, they had just occupied Maqale."

"That hasn't been in the papers," Jerry said a bit defensively. How could he not know what was happening when his oldest friend was in the midst of it?

"Probably not," Iskinder said. "Because who cares what happens in Ethiopia?" He turned, pacing away from the window. "Why should the Times of London or the Hearst newspapers cover Mussolini invading us? We're black Africans and the Italians…." He broke off, a bitter twist at the edge of his mouth. "Hearst may have attended Harvard as we did, Jerry. But last year he was in Nuremberg shaking hands with Hitler. Do you think he's going to print the truth about what's happening in Ethiopia?"

Willi drew in a sharp breath, and Jerry and Iskinder both turned. "Don't look at me that way," Willi said. "Just because I'm German doesn't mean I like Hitler! I think he's a nut. These crazy saber-rattlers -- don't they know where this goes?"

"It goes to my homeland," Iskinder said gravely. "We've had thousands of casualties already. Not that any western paper has bothered to report it, I expect. We must rely on ourselves."

Jerry frowned. "Then -- if you don't mind me asking -- why are you here, Iskinder?"

Iskinder smiled. "You mean, have I fled the country? Not hardly, Jerry. I have a job to do, and I mean to do it."

"What kind of job?"

"Our emperor, Haile Selassie, imagined something like this would happen after the Walwal incident last year. He is a prudent man, so he placed some orders just in case with Fusil Darne."

"The French arms manufacturer?" Jerry said.

"The same. A thousand M1922 light machine guns paid in cash last spring," Iskinder said. "To be shipped from Marseille to Alexandria for pickup." He sat down heavily in the room's one armchair. "I've come to pick them up. With their ammunition, of course. Fifty thousand rounds on belt fed cartridges."

"Jesus," Jerry said.

"I doubt very much Jesus has anything to do with it," Iskinder said. "He was fairly clear on the concept of not killing your fellow men. However, I am not about to let my country be overrun and my people killed. So I am here at the Emperor's request, and I will see this mission through."

Willi took a deep breath. "I see," he said. Jerry glanced at him, and Willi squared his shoulders. "And of course you cannot trust me."

"Italy has invaded Ethiopia, not Germany," Iskinder said. "I do not see you have any moral obligation to aid Mussolini."

"True," Willi said. He shot Jerry a look that was almost challenging. "Then I'll heat up some soup for our guest while you tend to his injury. Yes, I can see you are injured and you said you were stabbed. You had best let Jerry have a look at it. He practically has an aid station in that shaving kit of his."

"Come in my bedroom," Jerry said. "And I'll have a look. You should be safe enough here." He watched Iskinder get to his feet stiffly, almost as carefully as Jerry always did, and waited while Iskinder went into the bedroom first. Willi had his back to him searching out canned soup from the cupboard. "Willi," he began.

Willi didn't look around. "Which soup? Does he keep Halal?"

"He's Christian," Jerry said. "So whatever there is." Anything else he needed to say would have to wait, and so he followed Iskinder into the bedroom, closing the door behind him.

"You trust him," Iskinder said.

"With this."

Iskinder nodded. It was, after all, only his life at stake. Jerry felt a surge of pride. Iskinder put his life in his hands just as he had during the war, wordlessly, as though it were nothing. It was a lot to live up to. But now…

Iskinder sat down on the edge of the bed gingerly, his careful movements betraying the pain his face didn't show. Jerry rummaged in his shaving kit for scissors and iodine. "Take the gallibaya off," he said. "Let's see how this looks."

"Not as bad as it feels, I promise," Iskinder said. Beneath the tattered robe he wore shirt and pants. He unbuttoned the shirt awkwardly.

He'd lost a great deal of weight, Jerry thought, his collar bones standing out starkly. A pad of bandages was wrapped around his chest, covering ribs and passing just beneath his arm. Two bulges stood out in the wrappings, one on his right side below his arm and the other at his sternum.

"God, Iskinder," Jerry breathed. If he'd been stabbed just at the sternum it was a wonder he was alive.

"That's not the wound." Iskinder shook his head, slipping his hand down among the bandages gingerly. "But rather the cause of it. There's more than one reason I came to Alexandria, and the guns are only part of it." Wincing, he sought beneath the folds, then drew forth the object which had lain bound against his breast like an amulet from the wrappings of a mummy. He held it out to Jerry wordlessly, and Jerry caught his breath.

The gold shone in the dim lamplight. It was a medallion fully five inches long and nearly four inches high, the pectoral ornament from a necklace, the archaeologist in him thought even while he reached out a hand to take it carefully. Warm from Iskinder's body, it almost glowed, alive in his hands. Isis stretched her wings in the center, the vulture wings spread in benediction over all, Mut the mother granting protection and blessing. Four cabochon Indian rubies gleamed, set in the ruddy gold characteristic of the early Hellenistic period, almost rose gold. Exquisite. Amazing. Jerry lacked words. He turned it over reverentially, tracing the hieroglyphics on the reverse. Yes, a pectoral. He could see how it had hung, the inscription against the wearer's skin.

"Blessed is Isis, Mother of the World," he read, his fingers tracing each warm shape. "Blessed is Berenice the mother of the young god in this the first year of his reign." And there was the cartouche. Jerry read it aloud, speaking Horus Name and Nebty Name and Golden Horus Name, all the names of a pharaoh. "The Strong Youth Whose Might is Great, Who His Father Has Raised to the Throne." He'd seen that cartouche many times before. "Ptolemy II Philadelphus."

Jerry took a deep breath. A pectoral ornament, inscribed this way…. "A gift from the young pharaoh to his mother," he said. He looked at Iskinder keenly. "What's its provenance?" This had never been in a tomb, never been underground. It was alive.

Iskinder smiled thinly. "It has been part of our coronation regalia since the fifteenth century. Before that…" He spread his hands. "There is a document from that era that catalogs it, purporting to be a copy of a much older scroll that was degenerating. Whether that is so or not, I cannot say. Perhaps so. Perhaps it was invented in the fifteenth century to make a fantastic story for the piece. But the document is indeed fifteenth century. The Emperor has had it authenticated by scholars from Oxford. This is the relevant text." He searched through the pocket of his shirt and handed a piece of paper to Jerry.

The translation was modern and neatly typewritten. "I place the necklace of Queen Berenice into the keeping of Drusilla of Mauritania as part of her bride portion, once belonging to her grandmother the great Cleopatra, that she may carry the protection of Isis in her new place and that Isis may grant blessings upon her marriage. I, Demetria the Adoratrice of Isis, give this to her keeping with her mother's blessing."

Iskinder shrugged. "Purportedly, the Emperor descends from Cleopatra via her granddaughter Drusilla of Mauritania, who married one of the Herods in the first century. I say purportedly, as that depends on the accuracy of documents that are not nearly that old, and which may have been concocted to shore up the legitimacy of kings several centuries ago. But to the best of our knowledge…."

"Anyone who concocted a forgery in the fifteenth century couldn't have read the cartouche," Jerry said sharply. "Hieroglyphics weren't deciphered until 1822. They wouldn't have known it was the necklace of Queen Berenice. It could be anyone's. Any Ptolemaic queen."

"True," Iskinder said.

Jerry rested his hand on the gold. Taken from Alexandria as part of Augustus' loot, sent to Numidia with Cleopatra Selene's dowry, given to her daughter as a wedding gift from the Temple of Isis that Selene established in Mauritania…. And then a long trail down the centuries, treasured by women and men alike, given hand to hand from Jerusalem to Palmyra, and at last to Aksum in northern Ethiopia, gold like blood flowing through many veins to rest at last against Iskinder's heart.

"But it isn't," he said. "It's the real thing." His voice was sure and strong.

"It's the second oldest piece in our coronation regalia," Iskinder said. "The Emperor gave it to me for safekeeping. It must not fall into the hands of the Italians."

No second Rome. The pectoral did not want it. No second Rome, no second captivity, taken away from those of its blood to ornament a conqueror's triumph. Blood and gold, blood of the Ptolemies, steaming on a temple floor where Roman swords had shed it while a young priestess knelt in horror, the pectoral safe against her chest…..

Jerry blinked. Iskinder reached out and took it, cradling it in his hand. Iskinder's blood, a prince of Ethiopia who now brought it back to Alexandria.

Alive. Protective. Wakened by Iskinder's blood shed upon it, the assassin's knife turning against a ruby and sparing his heart…

"You're right," Jerry said simply. "It mustn't. What do you need me to do?"



( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 13th, 2015 02:06 am (UTC)
I'm not reading the teaser, but I absolutely cannot wait for the book and will buy it as soon as it's available. Thank you for writing.
Jul. 13th, 2015 12:23 pm (UTC)
Thank you for reading! I think you'll really enjoy this one.
Jun. 13th, 2015 12:19 pm (UTC)
Tease. :-) How long do we have to wait for the rest of this?
Jul. 13th, 2015 12:24 pm (UTC)
November is my best guess on when it will be out. I love this one so much -- Jerry in Alexandria!
Jun. 13th, 2015 01:43 pm (UTC)
Where ever you go with this, I want to read it.
Jul. 13th, 2015 12:28 pm (UTC)
Coming in November! I do love this book so much.
Jun. 23rd, 2015 01:32 am (UTC)
Aaaah, I missed this before -- just saw it while skimming back through the feed. This is really neat! I'm so interested to see where you're going with it.
I'd thought we might see Willi again, but that it might not be for another couple of books. Good to see him; he's certainly going to have some tough moral conflicts over the next few years.
And Iskinder! I'm hoping this will be his book as much as Jerry's, as much as I love Jerry. I really look forward to getting to know Iskinder more than we have previously.

It's especially exciting to read about the provenance of the pectoral, because I've been listening to the Bloodline series on The Ancient World podcast -- which is all about the generations descended from Cleopatra. The last couple of episodes have talked about Drusilla of Mauritania. The series starts here, in case you're interested:

On a completely different note, in case you missed The Crimson Fields on PBS last night (Sunday, June 21), I highly recommend it. It's about VAD nurses in World War I, and it's full of interesting characters and promising setups for conflicts. I liked it much more than the Poldark reboot.
Jul. 13th, 2015 12:31 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad you like it! Willi will be in Oath Bound and after that. There are definitely some bumps in the road in his and Jerry's relationship.

Oath Bound is Iskinder's book. This is the one we knew we needed Iskinder for way back when we started Lost Things and name dropped him.

Oh wow. I will definitely check out the podcast!

Did you notice Demetria the Adoratrice? That's Demetria from Hand of Isis. *grin*
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )