Prologue 1 : 30 BCE
"He'll carve the child right from your belly."
A cold solidity fell within her, Nefertari staring wide-eyed and horrified. It was a sickening astonishment to her ears, surely. For a creature as guileless as she it had to be. Her bangles tinkled lightly as she instinctively moved her palms to cover the rounded moon of her great womb. In nearing the completion of her seventh month- what she had sworn to be the slowest of them all yet- her child had dropped in its watery wake so as to nearly sent its mother toppling over. The young woman was tiny enough as it were, barely coming to his chest at her most erect. She possessed her own mother's grace, albeit without the customary Macedonian genes. No, this was a woman of Lower Egypt, flesh brown as the embankment of the Nile in the months of Peret, eyes dark with onyx curiosity. Her hair curled softly in links, still lively in memory of the night's earlier bacchanalian festivities. Even in the dwindling days of their faltering reign Antony and Cleopatra refused to do without the court's revelry.
Yes, and for all that bronzed allure she remained artless, incredibly naïve to the reality of what her mother and lover worked so hard to keep hidden. There was no winning banner for Egypt in this war. And yet it was upon such a ridiculous suggestion that he had to tell her neither enemy would take a truce for an answer; not Octavian, and certainly not Darius. Now that she understood the severity her husband's lycan adversary possessed, it became clear there would be no relying on the possible lenience of mercy. He would kill them both if given the opportunity.
She intended to shake her head, the beads of clay woven into her dark hair clicking against one another in softened confusion below her shoulders. The glitter in her eyes proved to be tears, no doubt; her innocence could not allow her to comprehend this on her own. And so why he had need to remind her.
"He wouldn't," came her nauseated whisper. Sickened with fear, the imagination of the very action, forced her stumbling to sit. He watched with cautioned hands as she slumped upon the foot of her bed- or, more truthfully, their marriage bed- and remained quiet. All this time she thought he had been safe; his promises had told her so. Even with the throne of Isis & Apollo crumbling around their ears he could keep her protected no longer. Octavian's soldiers would infiltrate the walls of the palace by morning. He needed her out of harm's way.
"He wouldn't just kill a woman heavy with child. No one would be so... be so... horridly... right, Kosta...?"
He took hold of her clammy hands before pulling her into his muscle-bound embrace, cradling her head against the expanse of his chest. Her sudden burst of sobbing was what he had been waiting for, the gentle kiss upon her hair void of uncertainty.
"Shh, miw-sher." The nocturnal prince remained quiet with his patience despite the pressure for time. Her trusted slaves bustled and hustled in the moonlit bedchamber as they gathered their mistress' previously packed belongings. The three of them did not exchange so much as whispers in their frenzied work: time was out.
He rocked her then, if only for a moment, to settle her rattling nerves. This was the greatest of her mortal shortcomings, of which she possessed many; his woman had no constitution for the unpredictability brought about by chaos. She knew not where he was taking her, nor how long she would be there or with whom. Anxiety had always been the catalyst to her blameless dysfunction. Their child did nothing to ease things, surely. Anything there was to fret over, Nefertari would soon enough discover. Did she know there was nothing left for her here, in Alexandria? Would he have to remind her of what would transpire once Octavian arrived to annex Cleopatra's palace? The prince was almost hesitant to share anything else regarding the particulars of her escape; because even as she was leaving, he would have to stay for the collection of souls. Neither he nor his cousins could leave until such a precious bounty of animas- particularly those of Antony and, the prince hoped, Cleopatra's as well- were gathered. It was why they had come, after all.
"My kitten, listen to me. Shh, listen- listen to me."
"How can one do such a thing, Kosta?" Her hands clutched at the fine gossamer of his tunic, now dampened with her saltine horror. She was blown away, the poor thing, by the slightest inkling of the enemy's brutality. Nefertari had always been a clever girl, but tonight such mental clarity shrouded itself in terror. For a moment his agitation threatened to seep into speech, though he spoke nothing. It was the fragility of mortality that kept her fearful, he knew. He did not like to blame her for what she could not help, or for what his intuition would not allow him to guiltlessly do. In some ways he was aware her remaining mortality was his fault, as he had plenty of opportunities to bestow her the Dark Gift in the year they had spent together. And yet, each time he had sought to kiss that silken neckline in her sleep, to grace that one throbbing, succulent vein with the impending transformation brought upon by his bared fangs... he could not. Something had not been right. Ever.
Even still, they were wasting time here, standing about. He wanted- no, needed to get her moving.
"Make haste!" He snapped his fingers at the bride's slavegirls, though the three were already standing by the backdoor. One of them, Ife, approached with a black cloak. It was much the same as what she and her peers donned to conceal their own bronzed faces in the night.
"My lady," she offered rather sternly. Ife held the cloak out as if refusing to give her mistress the option as to whether or not she wear it.
From his arms Nefertari turned to her slave. "Thank you," was all she could murmur, cheeks stained with tears as she allowed Ife to help slip the garb on. The slave brought the front flaps one over the other, draping upon the gentle bulge of a belly that cradled the prince's unborn child. A brief stint of all too familiar pride flushed his being, though it remained unseen in the moon-speckled darkness; his flesh was much too cold with vacant blue veins to portray his "pride" in such a manner.
Aye, but he would no sooner vocalize his satisfaction in her fecundity than he would display it. Not if he wanted her to live.
"Here, through the trapdoor!"
It was the curious placement of the door that seemed to puzzle her. From the door most commonly mistaken as a mosaic painting they gained entry to the tight, nearly airless corridor and took the narrow climb downward. With none of the decorative windows to spill moonlight upon their journey the women relied on the prince's nocturnal sight entirely. "Do not light the torch," he had warned, not but a step ahead as their leader. His grave tone seemed to descend from the ceiling itself, hinting that there was no room even above their heads. Only the Princess Nefertari had any room above, her stock lacking any significant height. She, however, remained more concerned with keeping hold of her husband's hand, the pattern of her breathing growing somewhat erratic in comparison to her slaves that tailed the line.
He had spared a snicker at her defiant inquiry, though his vision remained intent forward. The sanded stone of the walls scraped against his shoulders every now and again, reminding him of his distaste for enclosed spaces. It was nothing like sleeping in a casket. To his young wife he only said, "Because I said so."
The anxious sneer belonged to her. "I do not like that I cannot see an inch before me. Come, we will stop and let Meret light it-"
"Light that torch, and it will not last you the trip underground," he then countered sternly.
"You'll just have to lead us like you are now," Nefertari had affirmed. And while he had said nothing at the time, she was too preoccupied to think anything of it. Thankfully, Meret had complained there was no way for her to heed her mistress' request in the "pitch blackness", to which the prince merely tutted. He knew the women would need the light of the fire to make it out of the palace.
Now, as he held the plank upon the floor open, he ushered the women with a certain sharpness. "Go, now! Meret, drop the bags down to Sanura. Yes, Ife, you next... easy, now. I'll set the princess in after you."
Once glance down the opposite end of the torchlit palace hall reassured the princess of her momentary discretion. The guard must have been paid of to abandon his post- for how long, she did not know- making their getaway all the more surreptitious. She could not help wondering what her husband had paid him to keep his mouth shut and his eyes averted.
"Nef, kitten, come now."
Frantic, she glanced down at the rectangular hole in the tiled ground. Through the blackness she could not see Mere, Sanura, nor Ife, who had just leapt down. It was too high of a descent for her to make a landing safely on her own. That, she was sure of. She needed him.
"Give me your hand, kitten."
Without hesitation she took his palm again, obeying his simple command to "jump down". His one hand gripped the alabaster pillar as the other buoyed his wife, him leaning his weight close enough over the trapdoor that she could nearly touch her toes to the ground below.
When she let go, supportive hands blindly reached to keep her steady. Her slaves remained dutiful, Meret finally striking the torch alight with the stream of sight they had from above. The glare of the fire in her hands illuminated the countenances of partial relief. While they still had to journey out from the underbelly of Cleopatra's palace and into the freedom of Alexandria's docks, at least now they were entirely out of Octavian's eye. His Roman army would not know the missing member of Egypt's royal family scurried just under their feet in escape.
Above them, the nocturnal prince made immediate moves to recover the opening the plank left in the floor.
My lady," Sanura called in a hushed whisper. "Please, my lady. We mustn't tarry."
Nefertari kept looking tot he floor overhead. She glanced at her slaves, two of whom were anxious with her bags several feet away, Ife still holding fast to her wrist. But her gaze fluttered back to him above. "You have to come with me," she nearly insisted. The desperation split the severity of her voice as a splinter in a branch, threatening to separate its solidity in half. Upward her hands then reached, fingers splayed in the air as she begged for his comfort. "Constantine Aurelius, don't you leave me."
"Follow Meret just beyond the third stone arch," he instructed, leaning down into the rectangular opening to speak to her. While so short she could not even hope to touch him unless he outstretched his arm as well, though it seemed he would not put himself in such a position. His words were rushed, hushed, insistent. He never liked for her not to focus on the task at hand. Under usual circumstances she would take the time to sympathize with his plight over her, but this was different. She would not do this without him. She could not.
The soft tress about his dark hair bounced against his ears as he turned each cheek to check the expanse of the hallway. Their time was nearly gone. "The priestesses will be just at the docks to escort you to the temple, where you'll be safe. They assured me that you will be in no better a place to give birth, so heed them, my kitten. Do you understand?"
Tears had long since sprung into her eyes as he spoke. "No!" she cried, shaking her head in frantic retort. The beads clicked softly in her hair as her bangles tinkled, the princess desperate for her outstretched reach to be graced by the cooling sense of his own. "Come with me. You have to come with me!"
"Miw-sher, listen to me-"
"You must come! Do not leave me alone here! You can't just-!"
Her words were cut short by the serrated edge of his urgency, the young woman hushed to a mere whisper despite refusing to accept his answer. Ipu was tugging at her wrist softly, quietly insisting they obey as they had been instructed. Still she pleaded, reaching up to him.
Sighing uselessly, the tone of her husband's softened somewhat. Though still riddled with his intolerance, he soothed, "I cannot follow you this time, my love. There are things I must do to keep certain you will not be followed. That's important, isn't it? I have our honor to protect."
She bit the fullness of her lip to keep from sobbing aloud, hating him for the tenderness he reassured her with. Why couldn't he simply leap down and hold her, the two of them escaping together? Why must he insist on being the bravest and the strongest?
"Let them have our honor! All we need is each other. Please, Kosta! Your babe needs you." In nothing above a hoarse whisper, "I need you."
For but a moment, he had melted. He was melted wax in her hands; white hot yet slippery and malleable, if only for the moment in heat. Nefertari knew she and their child were the apple of his eye, and for many months she had possibly even abused the fact. They were his weakness.
From the darkness below she could see his metallic gaze glinting upon her. "Please. Come with me."
He shook his head, firm in his moment of malleability. The wax had cooled and hardened in her anticipating hands. "I shall be with you in a week. Both of you." His fanged smile counteracted her weeping countenance. "I promise you I'll be there for our child, my love. She knows when her papa is gone and will not move until I can be right beside you. Hmm?"
"My lady, please!"
Mnemet was near to shrieking now. Nefertari's tearful gaze caught their desperation plastered on dark faces, though she spared her nosferatu one more glance. Footsteps neared on the flooring above.
He had brought the plank back over the hole in the ground, naught but a sliver of his face to be seen even as he smiled down at her. His wife let Ipu pull her away slowly, eyes not leaving his. "Quickly now," he whispered hastily. "Go. Go!" The trapdoor shut and sealed with iron force above and behind them, the shriek of his hallowed name lingering upon her lips at the break in their union.
It was the last time he saw her alive.