Meanwhile Serafin, the master thief, the beautiful sphinx Lalapeya, and Eft, the mermaid, are also headed for Egypt. They are traveling underwater, in a submarine piloted by pirates. Serafin is not sure what they can do to the fight the pharaoh, but he knows surrender is not an option. Egypt has captured and enslaved his beloved Venice, and he and the others must fight the empire no matter what the cost. But the final battle will not be one that Serafin has even imagined--and the cost will be high indeed.
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Ice and Tears
The pyramids rose out of deep snow.
Around them stretched the Egyptian desert, buried under the mantle of a new ice age. Its sand hills were frozen stiff, its dunes piled high with drifts of snow. Instead of heat waves, ice crystals danced over the plain in swirling wind gusts that revolved a few times and feebly collapsed again.
Merle was crouching in the snow on one of the upper steps of the pyramid, with Junipa's head resting in her lap. The girl's mirror eyes were closed, the lids trembling as though behind them a few beetles were struggling to get free. Ice crystals had caught in Junipa's eyelashes and eyebrows and made them both seem even lighter. With her white skin and her smooth, pale blond hair she looked like a porcelain doll, even without the hoarfrost that was gradually covering both girls: fragile and a little sad, as if she were always thinking of a tragic loss in her past.
Merle was miserably cold: Her limbs trembled, her fingers shook, and every breath she took felt as if she were sucking ground glass into her lungs. Her head ached, but she didn't know if it was because of the cold or what she'd endured on their flight out of Hell.
A flight that had brought them straight here. To Egypt. In the desert. Where the sand and dunes were buried under a three-foot-deep layer of snow.
Junipa murmured something and frowned, but still she didn't open her eyes. Merle didn't know what would happen when Junipa finally awoke. Her friend was no longer herself since her heart had been replaced with a fragment of the Stone Light when she was in Hell. In the end Junipa had tried to turn Merle over to her enemies. The Stone Light, that incomprehensible power in the center of Hell, held her firmly in its grip.
She was still unconscious, but when she woke up...Merle didn't want to think about it. She'd fought with her friend once, and she wouldn't do it again. She was at the end of her strength. She didn't want to fight anymore, not against Junipa, not against the Lilim down below in Hell, and also not against the henchmen of the Egyptian Empire up here. Merle's courage and determination were exhausted, and she only wanted to sleep. She leaned back, relaxed, and waited for the frosty wind to rock her into an icy slumber.
The Flowing Queen roused Merle from her stupor. The voice in her head was familiar to her and at the same time infinitely strange. As strange as the being who'd installed herself inside her and ever since had accompanied her every thought, her every step.
Merle shook herself and marshaled her last reserves. She must survive!
She quickly raised her head and looked up at the sky.
A bitter battle was still raging up there.
Her companion, Vermithrax, the winged lion of stone, was engaged in a daredevil air duel with one of the sunbarks of the Egyptian Empire. Vermithrax's black obsidian body had glowed ever since his bath in the Stone Light, as if someone had poured him from molten lava. Now the lion traced a glowing trail in the sky, like a shooting star.
Merle watched as Vermithrax again rammed the wobbling sunbark from above, fastened himself to the sickle-shaped aircraft, and remained sitting on top of it. His wings settled on the left and right of the fuselage, which was about three times as long as a Venetian gondola. The craft rapidly lost altitude under the lion's mighty weight, rushing toward the ground, toward the pyramid -- and toward Merle and Junipa!
Merle finally snapped out of her trance. It was as if the cold had laid an armor plate of ice around her, which she now burst with a single jerk. She leaped up, seized the unconscious Junipa under the arms, and pulled her through the snow.
They were on the upper third of the pyramid. If the sunbark's crash shattered the stone, they hadn't a chance. An avalanche of stone blocks would pull them with it into the interior of the structure.
Vermithrax looked up for the first time and saw where the bark's tumbling flight was heading. The air resounded with a sharp crack as he pulled his wings apart and tried to steer the bark's descent. But the vehicle was too heavy for him. It continued on its downward course, straight toward the side of the pyramid.
Vermithrax roared Merle's name, but she didn't take the time to look up. She was pulling Junipa backward along the stone step. She had to pull her foot out of deep snow with every step, and she was in constant danger of stumbling. She knew that she wouldn't be able to stand up again once she fell down. Her strength was as good as used up.
A shrill howling pierced Merle's ears as the sunbark came nearer -- an arrow point aimed at her by Fate; there was hardly any doubt that it would knock her into kingdom come.
"Junipa," she gasped out, "you have to help me...."
But Junipa didn't move, though behind her closed lids there was twitching and trembling. But for those signs of life, Merle might as well have been dragging a corpse through the snow, for Junipa no longer had a heart to beat. Only stone.
"Merle!" Vermithrax roared again. "Stay where you are!"
She heard him, but she didn't react and had taken two more steps before the words got through to her.
Stay where she was? What the devil --
She looked back, saw the bark -- so close! -- saw Vermithrax on the fuselage with outspread wings, which the headwind was trying to blow backward, and recognized what the lion had realized a moment before she did.
The sunbark wobbled even more, swerved from its original trajectory, and was now rushing toward the opposite edge of the pyramid's side, just where Merle had been trying to get herself and Junipa to safety.
It was pointless to turn around. Instead, Merle let go of Junipa, threw herself over her, buried her face in her arms, and awaited the impact.
It took its time -- two seconds, three seconds -- but when the crash came, it felt as if someone had struck a gong right beside Merle's ears. The vibration was so great that she was sure the pyramid was going to collapse.
The stone was shaken a second time when Vermithrax came down beside them, more falling than landing, snatched up both girls in his paws, and carried them into the air. His body was cool, despite the glow he gave off.
His precaution turned out to be unnecessary. The pyramid was still standing. Occasional clumps of snow broke from the edges and slid one or two steps deeper, to be dispersed in blinding clouds of crystals, momentarily wrapping the incline in a fog of ice. Only after the avalanche had settled could Merle tell what had become of the bark.
The golden sickle lay on one of the upper steps, only a little beyond the place where Merle and Junipa had cowered seconds before. The vehicle had landed sideways, close to the wall of the next step up. From the air, Merle could see only a little damage, a hole in the upper side that Vermithrax had torn in the fuselage.
"Put us down again, please," said Merle to the lion, breathless certainly, but at the same time so relieved that she felt new strength streaming through her.
"Too dangerous." The lion's breath formed white clouds in the ice-cold air.
"Come on. Don't you want to know what was in the bark?"
"Mummy soldiers," the Flowing Queen interjected in Merle's mind, inaudible to the two others. "A whole troop of them. And a priest who held the bark in the air with his magic."
Merle cast a look over at Junipa, who was dangling in Vermithrax's second paw. Her lips moved.
"What's up?" asked Vermithrax.
"I think she's waking up."
"Once again, just at the right moment," the Queen bleated. "Why do these things always happen just when one does not need them?"
Merle ignored the voice inside her. No matter what it might mean for them all or whether they'd have more trouble because of it, she was glad that Junipa was coming to herself again. After all, she'd been the one who knocked Junipa unconscious, and the thought continued to pain her. But her friend had left her no choice.
"If she still is your friend." It wasn't the first time that the Flowing Queen had read her thoughts; the bad habit had begun way back.
"Of course she is!"
"You saw her. And heard what she said. Friends do not behave that way."
"That's the Stone Light. Junipa couldn't help it."
"That changes little about the fact that she may try to do you harm."
Merle didn't answer. They were floating a good ten yards over the nearest pyramid step. Gradually Vermithrax's firm grip began to hurt.
"Set us down," she asked him once more.
"At least the pyramid appears to be stable," the lion agreed.
"Does that mean we can look at the bark?"
"I didn't say that."
"But there's nothing moving down there. If there are really mummies in there, they must be -- "
"Dead?" the Queen asked pointedly.
"Out of action."
"Maybe. Or maybe not."
"Those are just exactly the sort of remarks we need," said Merle caustically.
Vermithrax had made his decision. With gentle wing beats he brought Junipa and Merle back to secure ground -- as secure as four-thousand-year-old pyramids situated over an entrance to Hell are.
He first set Merle down on one of the stone steps. After she was able to stand, she carefully took Junipa from Vermithrax's grasp. Junipa's lips were still moving. Weren't her eyes open a crack now? Merle thought she saw the mirror glass under the lids.
Slowly she let her friend down into the snow. She was burning to run over to the bark, but she had to take care of Junipa first.
She gently stroked Junipa's cheek. When her frozen fingers touched the skin, it was as if ice met ice. She wondered how long it would be before the first frostbite showed.
"Junipa," she whispered. "Are you awake?"
From the corner of her eye she saw Vermithrax's glowing body tense, noticed the mighty muscle cords that clenched under the obsidian-like fists. The lion was ready to respond to an attack immediately. And his distrust was directed not toward the sunbark alone. Junipa's treachery had made him just as mistrustful as the Queen, only he didn't show it so openly.
The girl's eyelids fluttered, then opened hesitantly. Merle saw her own face reflected in the mirror shards Junipa had for eyes. She hardly recognized herself. As if someone had shown her a picture of a snowman, with ice-encrusted hair and blue-white skin.
We need warmth, she thought with alarm. We'll die here outside.
"Merle," came weakly from Junipa's chapped lips. "I...You have..." Then she fell silent again and clutched the hem of Merle's dress. "It's so cold. Where...are we?"
"In Egypt." Although she said it herself, it seemed as absurd to Merle as if she'd said "On the moon."
Junipa stared at her with her mirror eyes, but the gleaming glass betrayed none of her thoughts. When the magic mirror maker Arcimboldo had implanted them in her and made the blind girl see, Merle had found the gaze of the mirrors cold; but the feeling had never been as appropriate as it was now, in the middle of this new ice age.
"Egypt..." Junipa sounded hoarse but no longer as indifferent as she had inside the pyramid, when she'd tried to talk Merle into remaining in Hell. A breath of hope rose in Merle. Had the Stone Light lost its power over Junipa up here?
From the direction of the bark came a metallic sound, followed by creaking.
With a threatening growl, Vermithrax whirled around. Again the ground trembled under his feet.
At the side of the bark -- in the wall now facing skyward -- a section of the metal snapped outward and stood there for a moment, trembling like an upright insect's wing.
Vermithrax pushed protectively in front of the girls, blocking Merle's view. She almost put her neck out of joint in order to see between his legs.
Something worked itself out of the opening. Not a mummy soldier. Not a priest.
"A sphinx," whispered the Flowing Queen.
The creature had the upper body of a man, whose hips merged into the body of a lion, with sand-colored fur, four muscular legs, and razor-sharp wild animal claws. He appeared not to be aware of Vermithrax and the girls at all, he was so battered by the crash. Blood was flowing into his fur from several contusions; a gouge in his head was particularly deep. After several attempts, he managed to climb feebly out of the hatch, until in the end he lost his balance, rolled over the edge of the bark's fuselage, and fell. He crashed onto the next lower step, as hard as a full-grown buffalo. His blood sprinkled the snow. He lay there, unmoving.
"Is he dead?" asked Merle.
Vermithrax stamped through the snow up to the bark and looked down at the sphinx. "Looks pretty much like it."
"Do you think there are more inside?"
"I'm going to look." He approached the bark in stalking position, low to the ground and with mane on end.
"If the bark was only a scout, what was a sphinx doing on board?" asked the Queen. "Normally a priest is available for such tasks."
Merle didn't know too much about the hierarchy of the Egyptian Empire, but she did know that the sphinxes ordinarily occupied the most important positions. Only the high priests of Horus stood between them and Pharaoh Amenophis.
Vermithrax climbed onto the fuselage as agilely as a young cat. Only the soft scratching of his claws on the metal betrayed him. But if there were actually anyone still alive inside, their voices would have warned him long before.
"Why a sphinx?" asked the Queen once more.
"How should I know?"
Junipa's hand felt for Merle's. Their fingers closed around each other's. In spite of the tension, Merle was relieved. At least for the moment, it appeared that the Stone Light had lost its influence over Junipa. Or its interest in her.
Vermithrax, still prowling, covered the last distance to the open hatch. He pushed his gigantic front claws to the edge of the opening, stretched his neck forward, and looked down.
The attack they were all expecting did not come.
Vermithrax walked all around each part of the hatch that was not obscured by the open cover. He looked into the interior from all sides.
"I am so cold!" Junipa's voice sounded as if she were far away in her thoughts, as if her mind had still not processed what had happened.
Merle pulled her closer, but her eyes remained fixed on Vermithrax.
"He will not go inside there," said the Queen.
What do you want to bet? Merle thought.
The obsidian lion made an abrupt leap. His powerful body just fit through the opening, and as he disappeared inside, its outline glowed. From one moment to the next, their surroundings became gray and colorless. For the first time Merle became conscious of how very much his brightness had made the icy surface around them sparkle.
She waited for a noise, the sound of battle, cries and roars and the hollow crashing of bodies banging against the bark's fuselage. But it remained quiet, so quiet that now she began to really worry about Vermithrax.
"Do you think something's happened to him?" she asked the Queen, but then she saw Junipa shrug her shoulders wearily because Merle had spoken the question aloud. Of course after all she'd been through, Junipa had probably forgotten what had happened to Merle. Who could really believe that the Flowing Queen -- a legend, an incomprehensible power of whom the Venetians whispered reverently -- would one day be living in Merle's mind?
So much had happened since then. Merle wanted nothing more than to tell Junipa of her adventures, of her journey through Hell, where they hoped to find help against the overwhelming Empire. But instead they'd found only sorrow and danger and the Stone Light waiting for them. But Junipa, too. Merle was burning to find out her story. She wanted to rest somewhere and do what she'd done with her friend before, night after night: talk with each other.
A metallic clang sounded from inside the bark.
The lion did not answer.
Merle looked at Junipa. "Can you stand up?"
A dark shadow passed over the mirror eyes. It took a moment for Merle to realize that it was only the reflection of a raptor that was flying over their heads.
"I can try," said Junipa. She sounded so weak that Merle had serious doubts.
Junipa struggled to her feet; heaven only knew where she got the strength. But then Merle remembered how the fragment of the Stone Light in Junipa's chest had healed her wounds in seconds.
Junipa stood up and dragged herself closer to the bark along with Merle.
"Do you mean to climb down there after him?" the Queen asked in alarm.
Someone has to see about him, Merle thought.
Secretly the Queen was just as worried about Vermithrax as Merle was, and she didn't conceal this feeling especially well: Merle felt the Queen's unrest as if it were her own.
Just before she reached the farthest tip of the curving fuselage she looked down at the lifeless sphinx two yards deeper in the snow. He had lost still more blood. It fanned out like an irregular red star, pointing in all directions. The blood was already beginning to freeze.
Merle looked up at the hatch again, but the fuselage of the bark was too high and they'd come too close to be able to see the opening now. It wouldn't be easy to climb up on the smooth surface.
A loud crack made them jump, yet it instantly resolved their fears.
Vermithrax was again perched on the fuselage. He had catapulted out of the hatch in one leap and was looking down at the girls with gentle lion eyes.
"Empty," he said.
"No human, no mummy, and no priests."
"That is impossible," said the Queen in Merle's thoughts. "The Horus priests would not allow the sphinxes to go on patrol alone. Priests and sphinxes hate each other like poison."
You know a whole lot about them, Merle thought.
"I have protected Venice from the Empire and its powers as long as I could. Do you really wonder that I learned at least a little about them from experience?"
Vermithrax unfolded one wing and lifted first Merle, then, hesitantly, Junipa beside him on the golden fuselage of the bark. The lion pointed to the hatch. "Climb inside. It's warmer inside there. At least you won't freeze to death."
He had scarcely finished speaking when something gigantic, massive rose up from the emptiness beside the wreck and landed on the fuselage behind the girls with a wet, thumping sound. Before Merle realized it, Junipa's hand was snatched from her own.
She whirled around. Before her stood the wounded sphinx, holding Junipa in his huge hands. She looked even more fragile than before, like a toy in the claws of that beast.
She didn't scream, she only whispered Merle's name, and then she was utterly silent.
Vermithrax was about to shove Merle to one side to better get at the sphinx on the bark. But the creature shook his head, with effort, as if every movement cost him hideous pain. Blood dripped from his head wound onto Junipa's hair and froze solid.
"I'll tear the child to pieces," he got out with difficulty, in Merle's language, but with an accent that sounded as if his tongue were swollen; perhaps it actually was.
"Say nothing." The voice of the Queen sounded imploring. "Let Vermithrax deal with it."
But Junipa -- , Merle began.
"He knows what to do."
Merle's eyes fastened on Junipa's face. The girl's fear seemed to freeze on her features. Only the mirror eyes remained cold and detached.
"Don't come any nearer," said the sphinx. "She will die."
Vermithrax's lion tail thrashed slowly from one side to the other, back and forth, again and again. A shrill squeal sounded as he extended his claws and the points scratched on the fuselage.
The sphinx's situation was hopeless. In a fight he wouldn't have been able to do anything against Vermithrax. And yet he armed himself in his own way: He held Junipa in his grip and used her like a shield. Her feet were dangling twenty inches off the surface.
Merle noticed that the sphinx was not standing securely. He had bent his right foreleg just enough that the ball of the paw no longer touched the snow. He was in pain and in despair. That made him unpredictable.
Merle forgot the cold, the icy wind, even her fear. "Nothing's going to happen to you," she said to Junipa, not certain whether her voice would reach her friend. Junipa looked as if with each breath she was pulling back into herself a little deeper.
Vermithrax took a step toward the sphinx, who evaded him, grasping his hostage tightly.
"Stay where you are," he said in a strained voice. The glow of the obsidian lion was mirrored in his eyes. He didn't understand who or what was standing there before him: a mighty winged lion, who shone like freshly wrought iron -- never before had the sphinx seen such a creature.
This time Vermithrax obeyed the demand and halted. "What is your name, sphinx?" he asked in a growl.
"Good, Simphater, then consider. If you harm a hair of the girl, I will kill you. You know that I can do it. So quickly that you won't even feel it. But also slowly, if you make me angry."
Simphater blinked. Blood was running into his left eye, but he hadn't a hand free to wipe it away. "Stay where you are!"
"You already said that."
Merle saw how every sinew and muscle in the sphinx's arms strained. He changed his grip, grabbed Junipa by both her upper arms, and held her out in the air.
He's going to tear her apart, she thought in a panic. He'll simply break her in two!
"No," said the Queen without any real conviction.
He's going to kill her. The pain is driving him mad.
"Sphinxes can tolerate much more pain than you humans."
Vermithrax radiated endless patience. "Simphater, you're a soldier, and I won't try to lie to you. You know that I can't let you go. Nevertheless, I have no interest in your death. You can fly this bark, and we want to get away from here. That's very convenient, don't you think?"
"Why the bark?" said Simphater with irritation. "We fought up there. You can fly. You don't need me."
"I don't. But the girls. A flight on my back in this cold would kill them in a few minutes."
Simphater's blurry eyes wandered over Merle and the lion, then hovered over the dazzling white of the endless snow fields. "Did you do that?"
Vermithrax raised an eyebrow. "What?"
"The ice. It doesn't snow in this desert...it never did before."
"Not we," said Vermithrax. "But we know who is responsible for it. And he is a powerful friend."
Again the sphinx blinked. He seemed to be weighing whether Vermithrax was lying to him. Was the lion just trying to make him unsure? His tail switched back and forth, and a drop of sweat appeared on his forehead, despite the icy cold.
Merle held her breath. Suddenly Simphater nodded almost imperceptibly and set Junipa down gently. She only realized what was happening to her when her feet touched the golden surface of the bark. Stumbling, she ran over to Merle. The two embraced each other, but Merle did not go below. She wanted to look the sphinx in the eye.
Vermithrax had not moved. He and Simphater stared at each other.
"You are keeping your word?" asked the sphinx, sounding almost astonished.
"Certainly. If you get us away from here."
"And do not try any magic tricks," Merle added, but now it was the voice of the Queen who spoke out of her. "I know the sphinx magic, and I will know if you try to use it."
Simphater stared at Merle in surprise and seemed to be asking himself whether he'd underestimated the girl at the lion's side.
No one was more astonished at her words than Merle herself, but she made no attempt to deny the Queen the use of her tongue -- even though she'd found out that she could do it.
"No magic," said the Queen, once more through Merle's mouth. And then she added some words to it, which belonged neither to Merle's vocabulary nor to that of any other human being. They belonged to the language of the sphinxes, and their import seemed to impress Simphater deeply. Once more he eyed Merle suspiciously, then his expression changed to one of respect. He lowered his head and bowed humbly.
"I will do what you desire," he said.
Junipa looked confused, but Vermithrax knew well who spoke from Merle. Better than any human he sensed the presence of the Queen, and Merle had asked herself more than once what constituted the bond between the spirit creature inside her and the obsidian lion.
"You get in first," he said to Simphater, pointing to the hatch.
The sphinx nodded. His paws left red impressions in the snow.
A shrill cry resounded over the icy plain, so piercing that Merle and Junipa put their hands over their ears. The scream reverberated over the landscape, out to the scattered snow pyramids in the distance. The ice crust cracked, and at the edges of the steps above and below the bark, icicles broke off and bored six feet deeper into the snow.
Merle knew that sound.
The cry of a falcon.
Over the horizon appeared the outline of a gigantic raptor, many times higher than all the pyramids, feathered in gold and with wings so huge it looked as if he intended to embrace the world. When he spread them, they triggered a raging snowstorm.
Merle watched as the icy masses of the plain were whipped and whirled up to them as a white cloud wall; just before they reached the pyramid they lost their strength and collapsed. The gigantic falcon opened his beak and again let out the high scream, still louder this time, and now all around them the snow was in motion, trembling and vibrating as if there were an earthquake. Junipa clung to Merle, and Merle instinctively clutched at Vermithrax's long mane.
Simphater lapsed into utter panic, shrank back with wide eyes, lost his balance on the smooth fuselage of the sunbark, and skittered over the edge into empty space, this time with much greater momentum than before. The next pyramid step did not stop him; he fell farther down, his long legs snapped, his head cracked several times on ice and stone, and the sphinx finally came to rest at the foot of the pyramid, many steps and yards below them, twisted so unnaturally that there could be no doubt that he was dead.
The falcon screamed for a last time, then he closed the wings in front of his body the way a magician closes his cape after a successful magic trick, hid himself behind them, and dissolved.
Moments later the horizon was empty and all was as before -- with the exception of Simphater, who lay lifeless in the snow below them.
"Into the bark, quickly!" cried Vermithrax. "We must -- "
"Leave?" asked someone above them.
On the next higher step stood a man, unclothed despite the cold. For a moment Merle believed she saw fine feathers on his body, but then they faded. Perhaps an illusion. His skin had once been painted golden, but now only a few smeared stripes of color were left. A fine-meshed netting of gold had been implanted in his bald scalp. It covered the entire back of his head and reached forward to his eyebrows, looking like the pattern of a chessboard.
They all recognized him again: Seth, the highest of the Horus priests of Egypt, personal confidant of the Pharaoh and second man in the hierarchy of the Empire.
He had flown out of the underworld in the form of a falcon after his failed attempt to assassinate Lord Light, the ruler of Hell. Vermithrax had followed the bird, and so they found the pyramid exit that brought them back to the surface.
"Without me you would have gotten nowhere," said Seth, and yet it didn't sound half as fear-inspiring as he probably intended.
The sight of the icy desert disconcerted him, just as it did all the others. At least he didn't appear to be freezing, and Merle saw that the snow under his feet was melting. Not without reason was Seth counted the most powerful magician among the Pharaoh's servants.
"Into the bark!" whispered Vermithrax to the girls. "Hurry up!"
Merle and Junipa rushed over to the hatch, but Seth's voice halted them again.
"I don't want to fight. Not now. And most certainly not here."
"What then?" Merle's voice trembled slightly.
Seth seemed to be considering. "Answers." His hand included the breadth of the icy plain. "To all this."
"We know nothing about it," said Vermithrax.
"You claimed something different before. Or were you trying to deceive poor Simphater in his last moments? You know who's responsible for this. You said he was your friend."
"We are not interested in a quarrel with you either, Horus priest," said Vermithrax. "But we are not your slaves."
The priest was an enemy like no other, and it was not Vermithrax's way to underestimate his opponent.
Seth smiled nastily. "You're Vermithrax, right? Whom the Venetians in ancient times called traitor. You left your folk of the talking stone lions behind in Africa a long time ago to go to war against Venice. Don't give me that thunderstruck look, lion -- yes, I know you. And as for your not intending to be slaves: I have no desire to have a servant like you. Your kind is too dangerous and unpredictable. A painful experience we had to suffer with the rest of your people too. The Empire has ground their cadavers to sand in the corpse mills of Heliopolis and scattered them on the banks of the Nile."
Merle couldn't have moved, even if she'd wanted to. Her limbs were frozen; even her heart seemed to stand still. She stared at Vermithrax, saw the anger, the hatred, the despair in his glowing lava eyes. He'd been driven by the hope of one day returning to his people ever since she'd known him.
"You lie, priest," he said tonelessly.
"Maybe. Perhaps I am lying. But perhaps not."
Vermithrax crouched to spring, but the Queen called through Merle's mouth, "Don't! If he is dead, we will never get away from here alive!"
For a moment it looked as though there was nothing that could hold Vermithrax back. Seth even took a step backward. Then, however, the lion got control of himself, but he maintained his ready-to-spring stance.
"I will find out if you spoke the truth, priest. And if the answer is yes, I will find you. You and all who are responsible for it."
Seth smiled again. "Does that mean that we can now set personal feelings aside and come to the nub of our business? You tell me what is going on in Egypt -- and I will take you away from here in the bark."
Vermithrax was silent, but Merle said slowly, "Agreed."
Seth winked at her, then looked again at the lion. "Have I your word, Vermithrax?"
The obsidian lion drew his front paw over the metal of the bark. It left behind four finger-wide furrows, as deep as Merle's index finger was long. He nodded, only once and very grimly.
Ground to sand in the corpse mills, echoed again in Merle's thoughts. An entire people. Could that be at all true?
"Yes," said the Queen. "This is the Empire. Seth is the Empire."
Maybe he's lying, she thought.
But you don't believe it?
"Vermithrax will find out the truth sometime. What I believe is unimportant."
Merle wanted to go to Vermithrax and embrace his powerful neck, reassure him, and weep with him. But the lion stood there as if turned to ice.
She motioned to Junipa and climbed after her down into the interior of the bark.
English language translation copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth D. Crawford
Glaserne Wort: Text © 2002 by Kai Meyer