SIXTINE Book I / Chapter 4
Updated: Sep 18, 2019
The hands of the large clock in the Mornay Wing pointed to seven-thirty.
In half an hour, an army of assistants would arrive at my hotel to help prepare me for my big day. The hotel was just around the corner, I still had a little time to spare. This was the last opportunity for solitude before a string of long, exhausting days mingling with the wedding party guests, and I was determined to enjoy it.
So I found myself in an Egyptian room, alone with one of the star attractions of the museum.
A three-thousand-year old adult male rested on an ancient table inside a glass case. The strips of linen wrapping his head were weaved into an exquisite pattern, and next to him lay the mask that once had covered his face, decorated with a winged beetle. A scarab.
The explanatory notice described the images depicted on the various parts of the mummy: the apron showed various goddesses and the four sons of Horus, including Hapi, the baboon-headed protector of the throne in the Underworld. Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the afterlife, was painted on the feet. On the casing, hieroglyphs said that the deceased entrusted his destiny beyond to them all.
I was fascinated by the extraordinary artistry of it; yet it struck me that I was looking at a dead man, alone and vulnerable in the middle of a busy museum hall. Would the hordes of tourists and selfie-takers who would pass by him in a couple hours pay him the respect he deserved?
Without thinking, I stepped closer. My hand touched the vitrine; my forehead rested against the cold glass. I couldn’t look away from his bandaged, eyeless, mouthless face.
I couldn’t look away from death.
The nervous excitement which had been bubbling under my skin since dawn morphed into something that took my breath away: a wave of compassion and gratitude and knowing, lifted my trembling chest. I couldn’t quite understand why I was so moved and what these feelings were, or even what I knew exactly. For a moment, I glimpsed at some complex purpose just beyond the reach of my comprehension, the expression of a greater power that lived within me just as it had lived within him, three thousand years ago.
Then the gentlest of caresses brushed my cheek, as if given by an invisible hand. My throat closed tight by emotion, as I knew this sensation well.
My mother was right there.
Her presence revealed itself as a feathery balm, a soothing song whispered silently. These gentle manifestations usually sparked within me an outpouring of hope. But on that day, there was a restlessness which I had never experienced before. As my mind wandered, my eyes blurred over the reflection of the mummy on the opposite pane of glass.
Lost in my thoughts, it took me a few seconds to realize that there was something else in that reflection.
The slim, dark silhouette standing right behind me.
“The symbol of rebirth,” the voice said.
I jumped and turned and at once recognized the man’s face, and that almost feline ability to stand perfectly still. Seth’s childhood best friend, artist and heir of a prodigiously wealthy family.
Thaddeus di Blumagia.
But remembering his name was not quite enough to slow my heart rate.
“Oh, hey, Thaddeus. It was you I saw earlier, wasn’t it? I tried to call after you, in the grand staircase? I was a bit lost.”
He stared straight at me with his deep, light grey eyes, and smiled. We had met only once before, at my engagement party. He was smoking under a No Smoking sign. We had talked on a frosty balcony, we had danced, and I had regretted it. What a strange night that had been. Every detail of the minutes we had spent together came rushing back, and my cheeks tingled with heat at the memory.
Gigi was right. I shouldn’t have come.
Hands dug into the pockets of a midnight blue suit, perfectly poised, he stared at the mummy.
“The scarab beetle. Ancient Egyptians thought it represented the rebirth of the soul. They were popular amulets in the time of Akhenaton and Tutankhamen. Queen Nefertiti, especially, was very fond of them. She had gold scarabs inscribed with her name.”
He seemed lost in thoughts for a while. I was about give a polite excuse to take my leave, when he suddenly turned towards me.
“Aren’t you getting married today?”
I laughed. “Yes. And may I remind you that, as best man, you’ll be right there at the altar. So we should both get going.”
“You know, I don’t think Seth could have picked a worse best man.”
“Oh really. Why?” Humoring him made my uneasiness melt away.
“Two reasons. First, I abhor candles.”
“It’s a church,” I said in a giggle. “Candles are like angels, gold and guilt. Part of the package.”
“For prayer or a funeral. Not for a wedding. There has got to be light, for God’s sake. And by the way, that Egyptian blue? Totally wrong.”
“Wrong,” I repeated, amused. “Aesthetically? Morally?”
“Historically. Egyptian blue comes from calcium copper silicate. What I saw in the decor of the Mornay Wing mimics a mineral from Iran. It’s Persian blue.”
“Mm, you’re right. I can’t see how your friendship of nearly thirty years can survive such polarized opinions.”
“Yeah, that. And also because I’m about to ask you to think twice before saying ‘I do’ to Seth.”
My heartbeat exploded inside my ear drums. I did not dare move. I replayed the sentence in my mind until I was sure I had heard it right. But his deep grey eyes, piercing everything inside me, convinced me I had.
“I am not sure this is appropriate, Thaddeus,” I said, my voice breaking into a reluctant whisper.
“It’s not what you think,” he said, his jaw clenched.
“You don’t know what I think.”
“Your blushing cheeks suggest otherwise.”
“Only because I am shocked by your words, angered and ashamed that you would even suggest that I…” I had raised my voice without noticing. I let its echo die somewhere in the emptiness of the museum. I couldn’t finish my sentence. What in hell was he suggesting?
He raised his hand. “Forgive me. I’m an idiot when I have something important to say.”
I was surprised to notice a flash of genuine anxiety in his eyes, just like the first time I met him. But my heart had leapt again at “something important”, and I was willing it to stop beating furiously.
“I love Seth, like a brother,” he continued. “And believe me, he drives me mad like only a brother can. But the Mornay Wing, the opulence, the gold, the blue, the treasures. The guests will make every effort to appear perfectly blasé. But don’t be fooled. Anyone would be blinded by all this.”
The white heat of anger rose in my chest. “Anyone, right? Not just the poor girl whom he met God knows where, three seconds ago. Isn’t that how it goes? Well, if that’s all you have to say, the mice haven’t finished my dress and my fairy godmother is waiting for me in the basement kitchen, so if you’ll excuse me, I better not keep her waiting.”
He didn’t take my bait, but as I was turning my heels, he caught my arm. He drew me close enough for me to inhale his cologne of exotic flowers and terebenthine, a heady mix which took me right back to the moment we had danced together.
“I’m the last messenger, Jessica. The last person who can tell you that if you remove all the shiny distractions, all that remains is a man, a woman and a promise to be together for eternity, in the name of love. The only thing that matters here and now is the answer to this question: are you ready to make such a promise?”
“Yes.” Oh God, why did my voice have to waver?
“In life, and in death?”
His beautiful face was so close I could see the imperceptible trembling of his lips. A dangerous familiarity had slithered between us; what he wanted out of me was so intimate, so raw. His intense grey eyes raised all the feelings of unworthiness, all the doubts and all the fears from the hidden depths of my soul.
Yet it felt entirely natural that he should know.
As I opened my mouth to speak, his long fingers bit hard into the skin of my arm. And suddenly, the whole universe cracked open in a flash of clarity. That cruel realization filled my stomach with a bitter, icy bile. What a fool I had been to think that the handsome, mysterious Thaddeus di Blumagia would care about me.
I could not help but chuckle. “I think you’re wrong,” I said in a tone dripping with disgusted glee. “You make a great best man, watching out for your friend and his gold. But you have nothing to worry about. Seth’s lawyers made me sign an iron-clad, gold-digger-safe prenup.”
I yanked my arm from his grip and whirled around.
“Jessica!” he called out after me, his voice magnified by the marble floors and glass cases. “There are things happening which are greater than you and me and Seth and a damn prenup! If you love him with all your heart as you say you do, you will live through everything. But if you don’t–”
“If I don’t, then what?” I shouted.
For the first time, he seemed at a loss for words, and his eyes flickered. Finally, he murmured in a voice so fractured it went straight to the deepest part of me. “I don’t know.”
We stood facing each other, united in our brokenness, an embalmed man as our witness. Around me, the world shattered. Time seemed to stop and wait for me to look away from Thaddeus’ grey eyes. They were burning with an ardent fire – threat or prayer, I couldn’t tell. I had to run before it consumed me too.
Before I walked away, I managed a smile and willed my painful throat to open enough to utter a few last words. “Well, I do. At the stroke of midnight, it all turns into a bloody pumpkin. Good try, Thaddeus. See you in church.”
I ran all the way to the hotel, the gentle Paris breeze toying with my blonde hair and my nascent tears.
Carry on reading Chapter 5 here.
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