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The Secrets of Isis

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Note: The readership of Amelia Peabody Emerson’s published memoirs is well aware that they are derived from an extensive archive of manuscripts and other papers from the Emerson family’s own collections.  By contrast, the following account has been taken chiefly from a wholly separate source: a much smaller body of papers recently uncovered in Egypt.  Considerable effort had been made to conceal this archive – not surprising, as its original owner seems to have been none other than Sethos, the Master Criminal of Mrs. Emerson’s memoirs, and much of the collection’s content describes individuals and events connected to Sethos’ illegal activities.

The present narrative supplies additional perspective on the events related in Guardians of the Horizon. Readers unfamiliar with that volume may wish to peruse it before proceeding further.

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Sethos Archive, Journal Collection D

After the dramatic sequence of events in which Tarek was restored to kingship over the Holy Mountain, I saw very little of any of the Emersons.  There was no further need for me to play the role of Nefret’s handmaid, my silent patron was on the scene, and Tarek himself invited me to become a guest in the royal household.  I accepted at once, both to obtain easier access to “Mr. MacFerguson”[1] – also Tarek’s guest – and because I needed both time and distance to properly consider the matter of Ramses.

The ensuing weeks were both pleasant and comfortable.  Tarek proved a considerate and kindly host, and I was able to settle accounts with “MacFerguson” to our mutual satisfaction.  Only one matter proved somewhat disconcerting: though it was understood now that I had never truly been Nefret’s servant, the priests and acolytes of Isis nonetheless insisted on treating me as one of their own.  “The goddess smiles upon you,” the high priest Amase would insist, in the local Meroitic dialect I was gradually learning to understand.  “Your presence shows us her favor.”  I did my best to discourage their veneration, but to no avail.

Meanwhile, time and circumstance did their work.  I had seen at once on meeting Tarek the tension between him and Ramses regarding Nefret – severely complicated by her status as adoptive sister to them both.  But I woke one morning to discover that it had evaporated like fog in the night, and that its vanishing brought with it an opportunity I could not fail to explore.

After that, matters sorted themselves out with surprising efficiency.  The Emerson party began preparing for its return to modern civilization, while I began to look forward to a future with Tarek.  I made certain private farewells to Ramses and to the erstwhile “MacFerguson”, though I retained the means to contact the latter gentleman should the need arise.

It was after these arrangements had been completed, almost on the eve of the Emersons’ departure, when Nefret Forth requested admission to the suite of rooms I occupied in Tarek’s royal villa.  “You are welcome, of course,” I told her.  “But—”

Nefret laughed lightly.  “But you’re wondering why I’m here.”

“The question had crossed my mind.”

“Several reasons, actually.  First, I ought to apologize—”

I blinked.  “You, apologize to me?  For what?”

“For treating you so badly.  You were dragged into this whole mad adventure against your will, and I’ve been treating you like a servant or a villain most of the time, or leaning on you and expecting you to rescue me.”

I resisted the impulse to grin.  Mrs. Emerson, I was sure, knew the truth of the matter, but evidently she had kept her own counsel.  “I’ve been a servant and a villain in my time, so I can’t very well resent the former.  And as for matters of rescue, I should think we’re even – after all, you and yours got me away from that man Newbold.”

“A point,” Nefret said, thoughtfully.  “But I still should have been...kinder.  And stronger.”

“Perhaps,” I said.  “That you were not yourself for a little while, I grant.  But there is something about this place, and most especially the temple where we were kept.  If I believed in such things, I would say there was magic here, and for a time you were under its spell.  And for that, no apology is needed.”

“Perhaps not,” said Nefret.  “But the Temple of Isis is the other subject we need to discuss.  Given that you’re staying on here....”

I nodded.  “Amase and his people will want to make me High Priestess.”

“They will make you High Priestess.  If the role is not filled, Tarek’s rule may not hold. It is a part of what keeps the Holy Mountain secure.”

I could not argue with that.  “So be it, then.  I have never been a woman of God, by whatever name; perhaps I shall do better serving a goddess.”

Nefret looked at me sharply.  “Do not underestimate the role,” she said.  “The people of the Mountain are wholly sincere in their belief.  They will not take kindly to one whose commitment they find wanting.”

“I shall give them no grounds for complaint,” I replied at once.  “This place and its people deserve every protection, although they cannot remain apart from the world forever.”

“In that we agree,” said Nefret.  “And even after their existence becomes known, it may be best that certain knowledge be preserved against treasure hunters and the like.”

I raised an inquiring eyebrow.  “So we come to the secret charge passed down from one priestess to the next.  I had thought that a convention of melodramatic fiction.”

“In this case, there may be some truth behind it,” Nefret said soberly.  “There are certain highly suggestive inscriptions in the deepest chambers of the temple.  They speak of a relic of great magical power sent out of Egypt for safekeeping after the death of Hatshepsut.[2]  I am not sure whether the amulet itself is hidden somewhere here, or if the temple merely holds the key to its location – it has been many years since I was shown the writings – but whichever is true, such an artifact must be kept safe from those who would exploit it.”

I was silent for a moment.  “Another tale of ancient magic?  I had thought you were a woman of science.”

“So I am,” Nefret replied, a trace of a quaver in her voice belying her words.  “But in this place....”

“Indeed.  We have both seen it – there is something uncanny at work in the temple.  Whether drug, or spell, or something woven into the very fabric of the robes you were given...there was a power at work in and on you.”

Nefret nodded.  “It was as if I had two minds, one my own and one not.  And that other – at times it was overwhelming.”

I smiled slightly.  “I am not an easily mastered woman.”

“I thought much the same,” Nefret shot back, “until I came back here after ten years away.  And the power, whatever it was – or is – took me over almost at once.”

“True,” I said, “but that may be because of your history with it.  As I have no such history, perhaps the presence will find me less easy to control.”

The former priestess shrugged.  “Or maybe it will take you over all the more easily.  Only time will tell; all I can do is warn you to take care.”

“I appreciate the warning,” I told her.  “But my course is set.  My future is here – and I choose it freely, uncanny rituals and all.  Here I will be both valued and valuable, and for one such as I, that is very nearly a fairy-tale happy ending.”

“So it is,” Nefret said, smiling at last.  “I envy you your happily-ever-after, you know.  For all that I have family, friends and fortune in England and Egypt alike, the little girl who grew up in the Holy Mountain remains with me even today – and she is still very much alone.  Be well, Dariah; ma'assalama.”

She rose, striding a little too briskly out of the room, and I never saw her again.

# # #

 

[1] The writer’s reticence in identifying this “silent patron”, even in what appears to have been a private journal, is striking – although perhaps not wholly surprising, considering the journal’s eventual inclusion among Sethos’ own private papers.

[2] Insofar as is known, no artifact meeting this description has ever been found – unless perhaps this is the item to which Nefret was referring.