These aren’t conventions that Nefret is used to - heavy skirts, heavy fabrics, heavy swaths of pine and ribbon and gold. Grey skies. Snow.
The first morning she’d woken up to see the snow and it was so beautiful and so terribly alien. Her throat had closed as she looked outside, brushing her hair. She’d cranked open the window against her maid’s advice, stuck her fingers out, felt the cold, shuddering at the flakes melting on her skin. What WAS this? She’d read of it, but nothing had prepared her. The household is joyous, proclaiming it good fortune for the season, but all she can see is how it blankets everything, robbing it of form. It feels like one more thing excluding her.
A glittering evergreen tree fills up the main hallway of this claustrophobic house in this claustrophobic land. Christmas - Christ - means nothing to Nefret and Aunt Amelia - normally so unshockable - gets a tight set to her mouth when Nefret says this. However, she suspects it’s less the sentiment than the company it was uttered in. Aunt Amelia believes strongly in being well-mannered in front of the vicar, another man in dark colors with dark thoughts concerning what Nefret should do and think.
“Your upbringing and views are certain to be at odds with those of the other gently-bred young ladies you will encounter, Nefret,” Aunt Amelia chided. “There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but you are a young Englishwoman, and there will be expectations that will be challenging to work around. It will be useful to your future to learn how to embrace those challenges.”
The vicar had not enjoyed comparisons of Christ to Dionysus, let alone to Ra ﹘ another god who rose again from the dead, albeit every night and morning.
In fact, the vicar had been rather put out, suggesting that Nefret receive private religious instruction to guide her more firmly back to the fold. As Nefret was never part of that fold, she’s not sure how she can be guided back, but she assumes he means this metaphorically. Aunt Amelia, even with her sense of Christian duty, told the vicar that they would be instructing Nefret themselves, and what better time to embrace the values of Christ and his disciples than with kindness and understanding at Christmas?
Nefret wasn’t certain about very much in this damp, dank country, but Aunt Amelia handled these little civic discords with the aplomb of a seasoned courtier. Her skill convinced Nefret that perhaps there were lessons to be learned from the wiles of well-bred English ladies after all. But first, she needed to navigate Christmas and all the colors and traditions that made Nefret feel like an utter imposter, homesick for sun and situations she better understood.
She is in the library, curled in a chair, looking out at the snow, reading up on holiday traditions with a cat in her lap when Ramses knocks on the doorframe, clearing his throat with a cracked noise, and asks to come in.
“Are you not enjoying the festivities?” Ramses is so stilted and formal for one barely out of boyhood. “I realize that Christmastide must seem somewhat bewildering after your time with the Cush, but it is all really quite charming when you give it a chance.”
Ramses is a disaster of dark hair and awkward limbs, with a hawkish nose too big for his face, and words too big for his mouth. His intensity of focus is sometimes too much for Nefret, brighter than the sun. He makes her feel broiled, like a roast. It should be a relief after the relentless cold and damp, but it just makes her cranky.
“Please go away Ramses,” she says, not caring if she’s rude.
“Mother insisted I find you. Tea. We’re having a holiday pudding that Cook wants to test out before Christmas.”
She sighs. “Fine, I’ll come. Just let me have a few more moments.”
Ramses hesitates. She’s heard Aunt Amelia give him very specific instructions about delivering messages, responding appropriately, and leaving after, but Ramses is quite astute at navigating the letter rather than the spirit of his mother’s commands.
“It is nice,” he says finally, working towards it like digging a trench. “I promise. I know it may seem… a great bother but Christmas﹘ I promise you it will be joyful. Even Father enjoys it, and you know how tedious he finds gatherings and dictated social norms.”
He pauses. “There’s Christmas pudding. And crackers. And the little ones really get quite excited.”
Usually, Ramses rambles about history, tautology, theology, philosophy. Sometimes he interrogates her about her past. Sometimes he merely shows up with Egyptian love poetry under the guise of making her more comfortable. It usually has the opposite of the intended effect. Nefret is not a child. She knows the meanings of some of those honeyed words, while Ramses only sees the emotion.
Nefret was a goddess. She understands offerings. Poetry is something a goddess has the right to sneer at, but kindness is as rich and welcome as smoldering incense. She can accept what is her due, and be gracious about it, even as her high-necked dress strangles her, the boots bind her, the undergarments pinch and poke, and the expectations suffocate.
Nefret was a goddess. She can bear discomfort and more.
“Thank you,” she nods to Ramses. “I really will try and appreciate the day.”
As it turns out, he is right. The Walter Emersons and offspring are full of giggling and good cheer; the Christmas crackers provided loud, extravagant pops of noise and color. They feel familiar - celebrations of life, birth, redemption. Even in this cold climate, the noise and color makes Nefret feel just a little bit at home.
She receives a beautiful leather-bound journal from Ramses, and a series of anatomical drawings from Evelyn and Walter of veins and limbs, three books from the other Emersons, and a stout umbrella with secrets in the handle from Aunt Amelia. The gifts prick at her eyes. Kindnesses. More kindness than perhaps she deserves.
There are berries and greenery hanging over the doorway between the dining room and the salon. Walter and Evelyn exchange sweet kisses under it. Emerson and Aunt Amelia embrace rather more vigorously, although she hears a feminine mutter of “Propriety, dear.” But Aunt Amelia accepts the smacking kiss regardless with a good deal of returned enthusiasm.
Nefret goes to get more tea, and Ramses appears under the greenery.
“May I?” he asks, his voice cracking again, just a little. He is several inches shorter than she, but he’d made an effort — cravat tied, shoes shined, hair brushed if still falling into his eyes.
Nefret bends her cheek towards him, and his lips are chapped, but gentle. He lingers until she stands back up, and gives him an assessing look. Ramses always pushes past what is allowed.
“Happy Christmas,” he says, “I hope you received everything you wanted.”
She considers — she is not alone, although she’s still lonely. But she is cared for, loved, and there is a future in front of her, different than any she’d considered, but real nonetheless. She has companionship that she is still learning to accept and appreciate. She has hope. She has family, once again.
“Yes,” Nefret says finally. “I believe I have.”
Colonel Jordan kisses her in a corner, while music from the Christmas ball plays in the other room. He uses the mistletoe, and the swelling feelings of the holiday as an excuse. Nefret doesn’t have any upswelling of emotion during the season, but she’s equally willing to take advantage of expectations to pursue her own interests. In this case, her interests lie largely in Colonel Jordan’s crisp uniform, broad shoulders, and shined boots.
As kisses go,it doesn’t live up to expectations. Certainly, it was not worth the risk of getting caught by an interfering pillar of the community, although Nefret has learned more about conducting clandestine meetings from these dark-corner embraces than from any of Ramses and David’s secret meetings.
Nefret attempts to extricate herself politely and then less politely, with a pointed boot to his shin when Colonel Jordan seems more amorous than observant.
“Sir,” she says, “that kiss does not give you the right to hold me here.”
He’s so startled that he finally lets her go. “I beg your pardon. I don’t know what came over me.”
Nefret has been studying with a doctor at the village back in England, who is horrified at any discussion of human sexuality, and a midwife in Egypt who mentions little else. She knows exactly what came over both of them. Nonetheless, this is an English party. She won’t belabor the point.
“Colonel,” she says, nodding, and returns, alone, to the ballroom.
Before she can enter, she’s accosted by Ramses.
He’s grown enough so that he’s now taller than she is. His voice no longer cracks, his features have grown even and handsome.
But he is still every bit as annoying as he was as a boy.
“Where were you?” he hisses.
She gestures towards the library.
“Do you have no common sense?”
“Colonel Jordan is a gentleman,” she says.
“I highly doubt that.”
“No, truly,” she smiles a little, a false English smile, and fans herself. Ramses’ cheeks flush.
“Nefret,” he begins, petulant, and she puts a hand on his arm,shaking him for behaving like a child.
“Ramses, I am infinitely more of a threat to these gentleman than they are to me, and how am I to find out what I want, if I cannot test out my theories?”
There’s something dark and sparking in his eyes. Her belly tightens, just a little, at the intensity of his gaze. Oh, she thinks. Oh.
Childhood is left behind in that gaze.
“We should get back to the ball,” he says. the most succinct she’s ever heard him. She should worry. But now she has something to contemplate.
Ramses offers his arm.
There’s a sprig of mistletoe hanging over this side entrance to the ballroom. Nefret stills him under it. She reaches up and brushes her lips against his cheek.
He blushes like a schoolgirl and she grins.
“Thank you,” she says, “for gallantly keeping watch over my virtue.”
They hang up English mistletoe in their Egyptian home. The older Emersons sit together on the settee as Nefret nails the plant to the doorframe.
“I’m glad we’re spending the holidays here,” Emerson says. The hair at his temples is shot through with white, but he’s still a handsome man.
The children tear through the salon, and their grandmother gently chides them for their exuberance, but even Aunt Amelia has mellowed. It’s just a bit of roughhousing.
One of the cats has run up the tree, and the twins have dived under it on either side to coax it down. As she’s likely safer up there than in their sticky, loving arms, she remains hidden, shaking the tree slightly as she weaves through ornaments and garland.
Ramses is far taller than Nefret is these days, and he does his own chiding at her up on the step stool, hanging decorations.
“Dearest,” he says. “Please.”
Ramses is a worrier. But fair enough, they’ve both given each other enough to worry over in the years since that first Christmas. Nefret isn’t one for lingering over the past, not once she decided to embrace her future. But she remembers that first holiday. How morose it had felt, how empty, how uncertain.
That her life could contain such riches, that the bright colors of her day would outstrip the fluttering carnelian and turquoise of her youth, that the shades of brown in Ramses hair, the black of her daughter’s eyes, the red of her aunt’s favorite shade of dress would be more meaningful than the azure of the Egyptian sky, the gold of the sand is still startling. That the colors of what you love outlast your memories was something worth learning.
She has even learned to play nice with the vicar, to appreciate the trappings.
Nefret leans down to Ramses, who holds the ladder.
“Happy Christmas dearest,” she says, as he holds her waist, her mouth against his, his lips cool and perfect. Hers.