A Big Shiny Blue Marble Ch. 40


"If you will now lie to me," Dakhete said, "at least have the courage to tell it to my face."

She reached out to take Nasira by the wrist. The leopards changed in their temperament instantly, jumping to their feet to circle and snarl.

"Call them off," Dakhete said, her eyes gleaming, "I have faced worse than this when you loved me as I fought for you. What is it to me how many I kill here when there is no love for me and I do not know what I did to lose that love?"

"Release me or you will learn of your true peril," Nasira hissed as they glared at each other, "They are not here to protect me.

Is this what we have become? I am here to meet my neighbor, the Kandake of Kas and to offer her my help if she would have it. I did not come here to open our old wounds."

She pulled her hand free and walked off a little, her shoulders bunched in anger. When she spun to face Dakhete again she raised her hand in an open fashion as she walked back. Her hand was open, but her index finger pointed.

The two huge cats next to her roared as they appeared out of nothingness, getting to their feet. Dakhete thought that their great forearms were almost longer than she was tall. She'd never seen cats this large.

"These ones are here to protect me," Nasira smiled coldly, "If I close my hand and point once more, ..."

Dakhete was furious as she planted her spear butt-first into the ground. "Then do it!" she cried as she stood bent a little toward Nasira with her fists balled at her sides, "Do it Nasira, and complete my confusion at last. Slay me and it will not matter anymore that I do not know and never have why the one I loved more than my LIFE left and never returned to me. You only used me to stand in your stead while you ran away again from something which bothered you. I was left to make my way alone when we swore that we would live our lives together.

Well I have done that," she shouted, her voice cracking and her eyes shining with her angry tears, beyond caring that her voice only upset all of the felines more, "I have killed an empire's ruling family in minutes by my hand alone because they caused you to run while I had to remain and pay the price. I stood covered in their blood but it did not bring you back to me. I ruled here because there was no Nasira who wanted to be queen. It was not my want to rule, but the people needed that, and so I did it.

When I led my armies against the enemies of Kas, it was what you should have been doing. No word ever came back to tell of what had happened and their bones bleached out in the sun unburied. After a time, the mere finding of one of those battlefields would turn a Roman legion and it did not matter what their centurions and legates commanded, they left Kas alone.

I fought your fights. I waged wars in your stead, Nasira. I would have been there anyway, but not as their queen. That was your task, not mine.

Wherever I went in the whole land, I always looked for news of you, but I never learned anything. And now I learn that you are a hidden queen right inside the land that I defended for you. What a neat trick.

You were gone for two years when I ascended the throne. After ten more years without you, I left. I do not blame you for how I became, but the hole that you put in my heart made it easy to slay whomever I was ordered to slay. I have raised whole armies of silent killers for the ones who commanded me. I remembered little.

I only knew one thing in my darkness; that I had been forsaken by one who told me that she loved me once. My light was gone and my joy with it. That and the pain was all that I knew, that I had given my heart and it had been found to be wanting and I assumed that I did not merit the telling of why. Whatever it was that beat in my chest, I left behind me when I left Medewi. But the pain, Nasira, wherever I went, ... whatever I did, ... the pain followed me like the ghost of something that I did, but I never knew what it was."

She snorted angrily, "You threaten to have me slain by these cats?"

She looked at Nasira and shook her head as she blinked through her tears, "I have stood alone in battle with my enemies all around me, killing all who dared come to me. I have pulled an arrow out of my own thigh and jammed it into the eye of the nearest foe. Just how little do you think of me, to believe that I fear the release of my death?"

There was a strained silence in the forest then. Nasira's shoulders slumped, "I should have known that you fear nothing," Nasira said quietly, "You have never feared anything."

She sobbed once, and her voice sounded thick in her throat, "Now it is I who must ask you to forget what I said. There is no threat that you would not take as an insult from me and it is not what I meant."

Keep your aid," Dakhete growled, "I have had thousands of years of nothing without you. I certainly need nothing from you now."

She yanked her spear from the ground and turned to go.

"Wait," Nasira said, just loud enough to be heard over the sounds of the cats, "You deserve to know. You will not believe me, and we will both weep our bitter tears afterwards, but at least then you will know and I will not have to carry it anymore. Then you can hate me as much as you wish, Dakhete, until we are both gone."

Dakhete stood boring holes in the earth with her glare for a moment. But she made up her mind and her knuckles showed paper-white as she clutched the shaft of her spear, "Keep your secret, I care not anymore."

She took the first step in the series that she'd told herself would set her free, but Nasira's soft voice came to her as the only power on Earth which could stop her in mid-stride.

"I never stopped loving you," she said.

She watched Dakhete frozen for a moment and wondered if the shoulders there shook from emotion or from bitter laughter.

"Why?" Dakhete whispered, "Why say this to me now?" She didn't turn around.

Nasira stepped forward and Dakhete heard her soft sobs.

"You know why I ran from my mother," she said, "You met my mother once when she came to Medewi to look for me. She was mad, raving barking mad, determined that I wanted her throne when really it was the last thing that I wanted, seeing what its possession had done to her. Her advisors and soothsayers told her such tales and she believed them, not trusting in her own senses.

When I left to get away from the prince of Kas, I heard my mother's anguished call that I come and help her to get free of the lies of her advisors. I went, for as much as I feared her, I still loved her and hoped that she had seen the truth for what it was.

Nasira wiped her eyes as she looked down, "She captured her fool of a daughter in a second. About the only thing that she did not do to me was kill me. Twenty-two years, I was imprisoned. My twisted mother called forth an ancient demon who defiled me every night as she watched.

I wept by the hour, Dakhete. You knew me as one who never gave in. If there ever was a time when I needed someone to fight for me, it was then," she sobbed, "but no one knew where I was."

She stood looking down with her tears running as she spoke. "Eventually, I found that I was with child."

She looked up then with a faint smile as she looked at the forest around them. "Twin girls," she said. "They were always wild and it took a lot of time and love to make them learn not to hurt when there was no cause. Having them saved me," she said, "They played in the dirt of our cells. They grew up in our prison and when it became clear to them that their father would do to them what he had done to me, they licked the bars of our cell wantonly, pleading with him to begin it with them. It was a ruse which they suggested to me.

"When he opened the cell, they had him, and while my insane mother stared at how they tore their own father to pieces alive, I had her by the throat. Without a weapon, I was reduced to doing the same as they did. When it was over, I hugged my bloody girls to me, though I had to tell them that we now would not eat our parents and that it was not a good thing to do."

She turned to look at Dakhete there beside her. "I freed myself at last," she said, "and then I slew every one of the advisors who KNEW what was done to me in the bowels of that jebel every night for YEARS on end! I slew everyone who knew of it and did nothing to help me."

She chuckled to herself, "I could have used your help even then. But you had gone long before and no one knew where."

She sniffled and wiped her eyes as she faced Dakhete. "I grew my own strength and I changed everything. I opened the pathways long closed out of my mother's unreasoning fears, paths which lead to other parts of what I rule. I re-established my dominion and along the way, I came to rule over ones such as these."

She smiled a little, "You are the first to have seen these large ones and shown no fear. It is to be expected from one such as you, I guess. Now, I am a queen who rules alone. I have subjects in two clans, human and djinn, but they love me as do my cats. I have three children," she said, "the ones that I spoke of, and the young one which you have met.

He feels a strong bond with you and your young pupil, so please do not chase him from your land. He has done nothing to you.

None of this makes me very desirable to suitors, I suppose," she smiled, "but I have lived my life holding my torn heart in my hands. It grows a little easier every day.

And now you have your answer," she said quietly as she walked past her old lover to go.

"And now?" Dakhete asked, "What about now? What do you feel now? You said that you never stopped loving me."

Nasira smiled a little, "Still the one who can do anything so long as she has some hard shred to consider. It is one of the things that I missed the most."

She looked right into Dakhete's eyes and the words came out as casually as Nasira could say them, "I never stopped loving you, Dakhete, never. That we have nothing left is because everything was stolen from us. Your not knowing caused you to think the worst, but my heart never changed. In your place, I would wish for my death too. I know that I wished for my own often enough."

Dakhete reached for Nasira but stopped when she saw that same warning look. "So now I know and can feel like a fool all over again."

She looked down and brushed a tear from her eye. "I thought that I had been forsaken. If only I had known. I am sorry that you suffered so, Nasira, and I will never again think that I had it badly, now that I know it all. Please forgive me for my hard words. You deserve better than I have given you and I am sorry."

She wiped her eyes and groaned, "As I am sorry that I was ever born."

She looked down for a moment, "This strange fate has made us neighbors. Now that I finally know the truth of it all, I would at least wish for whatever small friendship that you think that you can show to my lands and the people. The world may have turned us into what we have become, but to have a neighbor such as you would seem to me to be a small way to spit in fate's eye."

Nasira looked back and nodded after a moment, "Then let it be so and we shall see if it can become an alliance. I think that our young ones need that. I would hate to think that they might decide to run off one day because we quarrel. That would be perhaps the unkindest twist of irony to me, that my son has run away just as I once did."

"Our young ones, ..." Dakhete said in curiosity.

"Yes," Nasira replied, "your young pupil and my son. Another bit of irony, my old friend. They hide together and listen over there," she pointed. "Come here," she called out beckoning and the pair stood up and approached slowly.

"You say that you wish for my friendship, Dakhete? The truth is that you have never lost it. I know that if you had known what had happened to me that you would have torn the jebel down with your hands if you had nothing else. I only lost everything when you gave up, not knowing where to look for me, I just did not know of it then. I do not fault you for anything. You waited and searched for a dozen years.

You teach your student there," Nasira said, "Do me a kindness and teach my son as well for me."

She put her arm around Khyan's waist, "You will come to the throne one day. I wish for you to learn from our neighbors. You will still be as my emissary and you may act on my behalf if you have the need."

She reached out and the two stared at each other as Nasira touched Dakhete's arm lightly. "What I wish from you, Dakhete is that we make the time to talk between us. I do not care how it is to be done. I can come here, or you can come to Jebel Barkel as it is your wish. My door will be open for my sister queen and we will see what can be made out of it. Perhaps nothing, since it has been so long, but if we do not try at least to talk between us, then it is a certainty that nothing ever will.

Khyan has told me that you would seek living people in your land. I have some and better, they are merchants who know other merchants and makers of things. I just want others in our lands again."

"I am not troubled by it," Dakhete said, "but I wish to know how it is that I rule a land with a kingdom inside of it. I only learned of it lately when I met your handsome Khyan. How did such a thing happen?"

"It is an old tale," Nasira said, "You rule from Medewi, the main city of Kas. Before Medewi was the capital, Kas was ruled at Napata, a city founded by an Egyptian pharaoh as the southern limit of Egyptian rule. When Egypt grew weak, Kas rose to rule for a time.

But Napata was placed where local people had always come to trade, because Jebel Barkal is there and can be seen from far away. Before there was a Kas, there was Kerma, the same people at an earlier age. Kerma became an empire itself which made the Egyptians unhappy for many of the goods which were important to Egypt were controlled and traded at Kerma which lay outside their influence. Egypt crushed Kerma, though it took a long time, and as Kerma faded, Kas rose and Napata rose with it. When Egypt had weakened enough, the people once crushed under Egypt's heel came to rule them.

When Napata was known to be too close to Egypt as the black pharaohs' influence began to fade, the capital was moved to Medewi, since everything was here that was needed as well as iron to make steel for the swords of the Kas armies. Your people traded to the east and left Egypt to rot in their empty self-importance.

But Jebel Barkal the mountain was there long before any of this. It is one of the places where the djinn have always gone, and is an important gateway of my kingdom. No one knew of us and we watched as one empire rose while another one fell, over and over. It is not so much that my kingdom stands inside your own, Dakhete, it is that yours grew around my mother's gate long ago.

But I make myself sound so old and wise to say it this way," Nasira smiled, "when you know that I am a year younger than you. This is only what I have learned myself, seeking to know the answer to the same question as you have asked. I do not rule a kingdom of land, not much anyway. I rule the gateways, and the paths, the roads, and the tunnels of an old race.

Teach my Khyan what you will and what he wishes to learn, and I will teach you and your Yasmin how to use my roads. Rebuild your city with your dead ones at first and I will send living subjects to grow the influence of Kas once more. The Egyptians are gone, along with the Assyrians and Askumites who came to conquer Kas after you left. Be a friend to me once more and you can reclaim or rebuild Musawwarat es-Sufra, and Naqa as well as Shendi with my aid. It would make me happy to help you."

Nasira looked at the two teenagers and smiled, "Who knows, Dakhete? Perhaps this friendship that I see growing between the kittens can rule what we leave behind for them."

"It grows dark soon," Dakhete said, "and none of us have eaten, I am certain. Come to Medewi, Nasira. There is food enough for all, even your companions. We have not seen each other in so long and I have no wish to take up my duties again today. Yasmin has earned herself a rest from her training. Please come, it is not yet what I need it to be, but ...,

Oh, please come. If I have not lost your friendship, then I wish to spend time with you. There is so much to speak of."

"This pleases me," Nasira said, "but I have no clothes, other than my cape. I do not think that it would do to come to Meroe as the naked queen of Jebel Barkal. Your subjects would think that it has fallen on hard times," she smiled.

"I do not even have my cloak," Dakhete grinned, "What of it? We are ruling queens, Nasira. If I cannot walk down my streets dressed as I wish, then,..."

"I know," Nasira smiled, "We only need an entrance, no? I can manage to provide the spectacle if you can manage the food."

A few minutes later, Dakhete looked around, "What are all of these other cats here for, if they are not to protect you, Nasira?"

"They are the guards for Khyan," she smiled, "I know that he travels as one in fur rags most often, but he is still one of my children. They can behave in a proper place, these cats. Most of his are like leopards, though there are two who are long toothed cats.

The one who wears the collar is my gift to you, Dakhete. Actually, he gives himself to you and he is not even a leopard. He has liked you since you came, wanting only to be near you, but never knowing the way to begin until I sent him today. Before that, he spent his time near the edge of the city, hoping for a look at you. He is happiest when you go to the river to bathe and he can be close by, hiding in the grass."

"In the grass by the river?" Dakhete was a little astounded, "And I never knew."

"Have you seen any crocodiles there of late? Do you think that it was your dead soldiers?" Nasira smiled, "These ones can kill a crocodile larger than themselves with little more than a look. They are not like the cats here, and there is nothing stealthier than one of these cats. You are lucky if he did not lick your haunch and you did not know of it.

He sits over there where you left him. I can see that he is feeling a little sad, thinking that you do not want him. These are not ordinary cats. You will never have to scold him for spraying in the corner. It is for you to decide if you have the room for him in your heart, Dakhete. You may keep him, as he hopes, or you may leave him and I will send him home."

Dakhete looked at the dark animal. He still sat where he'd been all of this time. He looked around now and then but mostly he sat watching Dakhete. "Does he have a name that he knows?" she asked, "How am I to call him?"

"His name is something which you and I could never say. He knows himself as either 'Saddiq' the Arabic for 'true or truthful' and simply 'Anmar' – 'leopard'. Either one will do for him or both if you prefer."

"What use is it to call him by what he is if there are several? What would happen if I say the name now? All of them would turn?"

Nasira shook her head, "No. Firstly, the largest ones are not leopards. Secondly, if you meant the one who wishes to be a friend to you and you say the word, only he would turn. They know what is meant. Have you not noticed that he seems to understand what you say to him? They are wise. And do not worry about what is said in his presence. Unless it concerns him, he is more interested in the birds. Make him happy and call him Saddiq Anmar. It is what he would wish to hear from you."

"True Leopard?" Dakhete smled, "It is a little odd for a cat, no?"

"Look into his eyes," Nasira smiled, "and you will know."

Dakhete tried not to be obvious, but she did find herself admiring him, as she'd done from the first moment that she'd been aware of his presence in her throne room. He was larger, and more heavily built. He must have been over six feet from his nose to his haunches when he was standing on all fours, and then there was that tail. Quiet strength and grace lay all over him. "I have never seen such a fine leopard," Dakhete said, "and you know I do not lie. I will return," she said. She smiled to herself and walked to where the coal dark one sat looking at her with interest as she approached. His eyes grew large when she knelt before him.

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