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They attacked at dawn. I woke instantly at the sound of pounding hooves, for I knew what it meant. The Beduin were on the warpath!
"What is it you find so amusing, my dear?" I inquired. Nefret looked up from her book. "I am sorry if I disturbed you, Aunt Amelia, but I couldn't help laughing. Did you know that Beduins go on the warpath? Wearing feathered headdresses and waving tomahawks, no doubt!"
The library of our house in Kent is supposed to be my husband's private sanctum, but it is such a pleasant room that all the members of the family tend to congregate there, especially in fine weather. Except for my son Ramses we were all there that lovely autumn morning; a cool breeze wafted through the wide windows that opened onto the rose garden, and sunlight brightened Nefret's gold-red hair.
Reclining comfortably upon the sofa, Nefret wore a sensible divided skirt and shirtwaist instead of a proper frock. She had become as dear as a daughter to us since we rescued her from the remote oasis in the Nubian Desert where she had spent the first thirteen years of her life, but despite my best efforts I had been unable to eradicate all the peculiar notions she had acquired there. Emerson claims some of those peculiar notions have been acquired from me. I do not consider a dislike of corsets and a firm belief in the equality of the female sex peculiar, but I must admit that Nefret's habit of sleeping with a long knife under her pillow might strike some as unusual. I could not complain of this, however, since our family does seem to have a habit of encountering dangerous individuals.
Hunched over his desk, Emerson let out a grunt, like a sleepybear that has been prodded by a stick. My distinguished husband, the greatest Egyptologist of all time, rather resembled a bear at that moment: his broad shoulders were covered by a hideous ill-fitting coat of prickly brown tweed (purchased one day when I was not with him) and his abundant sable locks were wildly disheveled. He was working on his report of our previous season's excavations and was in a surly mood for, as usual, he ad put the job off until the last possible moment and was behind schedule.
"Is that Percy's cursed book you are reading?" he demanded. "I thought I threw the damned thing onto the fire."
"You did." Nefret gave him a cheeky smile. Emerson is known as the Father of Curses by his admiring Egyptian workmen; his fiery temper and Herculean frame have made him feared throughout the length and breadth of Egypt. (Mostly the former, since as all educated persons know, Egypt is a very long narrow country.) However, none of those who know him well are at all intimidated by his growls, and Nefret had always been able to wind him round her slim fingers. I ordered another copy from London," she said calmly. "Aren't you at all curious about what he writes? He is your own nephew, after all."
"He is not my nephew." Emerson leaned back in his chair. "His father is your Aunt Amelia's brother, not mine. James is a hypocritical, sanctimonious, mendacious moron and his son is even worse."
Nefret chuckled. "What a string of epithets! I don't see how Percy could be worse."
"Ha!" said Emerson.
Emerson's eyes are the brilliant blue of a sapphire, and they become even more brilliant when he is in a temper. Any mention of a member of my family generally does put him in a temper, but on this occasion I could tell he was not averse to being interrupted. He stroked his prominent chin, which is adorned with a particularly handsome dent, or dimple, and looked at me.
Or, as a writer more given to clichés might say, our eyes locked. They often do, for my dear Emerson and I have shared one another's thoughts ever since that halcyon day when we agreed to join hearts, hands and lives in the pursuit of Egyptology. I seemed to see myself reflected in those sapphirine orbs, not (thank Heaven) as I really appear, but as Emerson sees me: my coarse black hair and steely gray eyes and rather too-rounded form transfigured by love into his ideal of female beauty. In addition to the affectionate admiration mirrored in his gaze, I saw as well a kind of appeal. He wanted me to be the one to sanction the interruption of his work.
I was not averse to being interrupted either. I had been busily scribbling for several hours, making lists of Things to Be Done and writing little messages to tradesmen. There were more things than usual to be done that particular yearnot only the ordinary arrangements for our annual season of excavation in Egypt, but preparations for houseguests and for the forthcoming nuptials of two individuals near and dear to all of us. My fingers were cramped with writing, and if I must be entirely honest I will admit I had been somewhat annoyed with Emerson for burning Percy's book before I could have a look at it.
The only other one of the family present was David. Strictly speaking, he was not a member of the family, but he soon would be, for his marriage to my niece Lia would take place in a few weeks. That arrangement had caused quite a scandal when the announcement was first made. David was a purebred Egyptian, the grandson of our late, greatly lamented reis Abdullah; Lia was the daughter of Emerson's brother Walter, one of England's finest Egyptological scholars, and of my dear friend Evelyn, granddaughter of the Earl of Chalfont. The fact that David was a talented artist and a trained Egyptologist carried weight with people who considered all members of . . .