Friday, September 21, 2012

Novel Excerpt

Chapter 1

Today is my sixteenth birthday. It’s also the day of my husband’s funeral.

Two young men, clothed in shades of black, lower the bundle that contains Xenres’ body into the small grave. I feel like a part of me is being lowered into that dark hole with him, but it’s a part of me I’m glad to lose.

My late husband’s brothers, sisters and children from his first wife glower at me through their tears, as if they blame me for his sudden death. They probably do. But fishermen found Xenres lying face down in the mud near the eastern banks of the Nile just a few days ago without a mark on him. I had nothing to do with it. Though I may or may not have prayed to the gods to take him away - every day since our marriage three years ago.

Not that I think his death had anything to do with that. The gods never paid me much mind before, at least when it comes to giving me things that I want. Xenres’ death had been because of a bad heart, most likely. He was old. Of course our age difference wasn’t an issue when my parents agreed to ship me off to Egypt to be his bride. I was a bribe. Here, take the princess and keep your Persian armies away from our country. I’m not angry about it. This type of arrangement isn’t unusual these days. I just wish I had gotten shipped off to a handsome and maybe slightly broody prince instead of a military man long past his prime.

The funeral songs fade away and I step forward on cue with a small tray topped with a bowl of food, a flask of water, and a jar painted with red flowers and filled with ointment. I kneel and lower the gift-laden plank into the grave beside the body. Before I get the presentation settled in the bottom of the hole, a few pieces of fruit slide off the side and land in the sand, making them inedible to the dead man in the afterlife. It’s not entirely an accident. A few people mutter but I pretend not to hear them and nestle the rest of the offering into the grave.

Two men start filling in the hole before I can get back to my feet and bits of grave dirt fly into my face. I keep my expression passive as I stand and brush it away. I’ve long ago learned how useless it is to voice any complaints to my husband’s family. Back when I still had a poetic streak in me, when I had been a new bride at the age of thirteen, I described myself as feeling like a bird thrown in a cold metal cage right after leaving the nest. Xenres had laughed.

Several women in the back of the crowd start wailing again, and I bury my face in my hands in order to follow suit. I do not cry though. I simply pray for this day to be over soon.

Once the Egyptian sand covers the grave again, the men place heavy stones at the head to mark the spot. It’s my turn. I pick up a small pitcher of wine and approach the grave. I pour the liquid out over the stones and watch it spatter like blood. “Please receive Xenres safely into your realm.”

I make sure not to mention exactly which god I am addressing. There are enough people with dissenting opinions about deities at this funeral to cause a fuss if I mention the wrong name. I picture my mother’s Greek god of death, Hades, as I pray — Xenres was always fascinated by our Greek gods — but I don’t care if it is my father’s Egyptian god of the dead, Osiris, or the Persian god Ahuramazda who hears me instead, as long as one of them takes him away. This little bird is tired of singing on command.

After a few more funeral songs, the crowd turns from the grave. Unfortunately they won’t head home yet. Now it is time to go back to the house for the feast in the dead man's honor. I will have to put on a show of mourning for a few more hours yet. What I really want is to collapse into bed and fall into sweet unconsciousness.

I get caught behind a pair of slow-moving mourners dressed in black, and adjust my pace with a sigh. I’m content to let my mind go blank for the walk home, but my ears perk up when one of the women mentions my name.

“Andromeda never had any children at all?” the first woman says in what she apparently thinks is a hushed voice. “Xenres had children by his first wife, didn't he?”

The second woman tsks. “Of course. Four strong sons and a daughter, but not a single pregnancy from this girl. I've heard he has had nothing but ill fortune since their marriage, and now he's dead. The girl is god-cursed, I think.”

I grit my teeth and slow my pace even more to let the gossips pull away. My fingers wander to the small golden frog pendant under my clothes. It’s an Egyptian fertility charm — a not-so-subtle gift from my father, probably on insistence from my mother. Even though a squalling baby on my hip is the last thing I ever wanted, I’ve worn the charm anyway, more as a reminder of home than anything else. Like I said before, the gods seem to pay me no mind. I never believed a bit of molded gold on a chain would change that.

When I reach the house, a dark-haired boy about my age stands in the doorway, blocking my path. I try to side-step him, but he reaches out and takes me gently by the arm. “Andromeda?”

I narrow my eyes at him, wary. He wears a white linen kilt in the Egyptian style and a small gold hoop in his left ear glints in the fading sunlight underneath his dark shoulder-length hair. His eyes are outlined in black pigment – also an Egyptian fashion. It takes me several heartbeats to realize I know him. The thin, sickly boy from my childhood memories had somehow grown into a tall, trim young man with a sleek layer of muscle across his bare chest.

“Phineus?” I ask, to be sure. When he nods, I fly into his open arms and find genuine tears squeezing from underneath my eyelids. “What are you doing here?”

Several of my late husband's relatives stop to stare and I realize my breach in etiquette. The gossips will be whispering tonight about the new widow throwing herself into the arms of another man on the day of her husband’s funeral. I jerk back. “He's my uncle,” I stutter in explanation to the nearest mourners. “My father's younger brother.”

With this explanation, the mourners turn away from me and file inside the house, though some raise an eyebrow at me as they pass, no doubt doubting the truth of my claim. Phineus is only two years older than me, after all. My grandfather married a much younger woman after his first wife died. This new wife had Phineus, which actually makes him my half-uncle, I think. Our family is complicated.

Phineus pulls me off to the side and to let the funeral guests continue on into the house. “Are you all right?” he asks gently. “I tried to make it in time for the funeral.”

“I'm managing,” I say while dabbing my tears away. “How about you?” I drop my voice to a whisper. “I heard news that some Egyptians were in trouble for trying to overthrow the Persians’ rule in your corner of the country. I was worried you were involved.”

The corner of Phineus' mouth tugs up into a smirk. “Are you suggesting that I'm some kind of troublemaker?”

I raise an eyebrow at him, but before I can get out a reply, he grins and pulls me into another hug. “It's good to see you again,” he says.

I lean my head on his chest with a sigh. I didn’t miss that he had dodged the question about rebel activity against the Persians, but I am too tired to insist on an answer. “It's good to see a friendly face. This funeral has gone on for nearly a week. I'm surprised word of my husband's death got to you so quickly though.”

“I've just come back from visiting your parents back in Joppa. They’ve sent a message.”

I pull back and look up at him, expecting to hear condolences, though both my mother and father have always known how little I cared for my late husband. However, Phineus winks and says something that makes the world stop: “We’re bringing you home.”

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