"A Princess' Tale"
I've known her since I was a child, and she has always been and remains the most beautiful entity I have ever been blessed enough to lay eyes on. I stare up at her, lips painted yellow her breath slightly uneven as she looks at me with those endless, dark eyes, her lips curving slightly giving the impression of a smile. She is feeling pleased with herself, and I suppose she should be. She is not the woman I once knew, the woman I wish I could know again, but despite that, despite the fact that she now stands over my aching body smirking at me smugly as the entire court watches me crumble, I love her. I love her so much that I can feel it consuming me, sinisterly engulfing me like the forbidden sand pits. And as I hear her voice, her low, soft voice and look into those eyes that I swear I can still see some affection in, I know that she has won, because whether or not I have her she will always have me. I grasp her now outstretched hand, my lips' parting slightly as our skin makes contact for the first time and allow her to pull me to my feet. He is speaking now so I turn my attention to him – though it inevitably returns to her moments later. He is congratulating us, and in the background I can hear cheering, we must have put on a fine show. He walks up behind her and I try not to glare, he is my father and I must show complete obedience, he loves me but I have no delusions as to how much. Still, if he only knew, if I could only forget.
I hear the doors to my bedchamber close noisily as Phaiki makes her way out. It is late and normally she would have left hours ago to make her way back to her own home, her own family. But for a little while now she has stayed, deep into the night until she can stay no more. She has taken care of me since I was a child, and when I hear people speak of their mothers I think and mostly speak I think of Phaiki. She worries about me as if I were truly hers, and I love her for it for she is one of the only one who I think truly cares for me anymore. I will take care of her always. I wish she would stop though, staying into the night to try and heal a wound she has no salve for. I have taken to sending her away now for she can't help me, only harm herself.
I step out onto the balcony. A gentle breeze ruffling my hair and blowing pleasantly across my face. I brace my hands on the ledge and lean forward. It is a small pleasure, but I find that those can be the most satisfying. I can see her chambers from here, it is directly across the court, a fact that I used to take immense pleasure in but that now wounds me so deeply I think about turning away. I never do however; I simply stand and watch my mind wandering into the past, to a time when the world was beautiful like her.
She was sixteen the first time I meet her, tall, bronzed, and proud, and she looked down that straight, narrow nose at me, her features reflecting nothing. I was fourteen and tall – though not as tall as her – bronzed, and of the two of us had the most reason to stand proud, which I did, yet next to her I felt inadequate, a con. She played the part better than I and for me it was no part at all. I met her gaze and her eyes dropped, after a slight hesitation, as she bowed to me.
So fascinated by her had I been that I had not seen my father arrive. He stood behind her, his hand resting on her shoulder.
"I see you have found your way Anuk Su Namun," he said in a deep baritone that boomed with warmth though none of it showed on his face.
When he finished speaking she moved for the first time since bowing to me, a subtle movement that went noticed only by me. She raised a pair of questioning eyes to me, and I realized that she had no idea what to do in my father's presence. That she most likely had no idea what to do in my presence either. I looked at her more carefully, and saw that while not malnourished she was rather underweight, and that her hair though expertly styled lacked the luster that my own and most nobles hair held. And her bow though proficient would have truly embarrassed someone who had been doing it since they were old enough to walk. She was a peasant who had been brought to court. But for what? For me it seemed. I nodded at her in a way I prayed was unnoticeable to those around us, and tried to convey to her with my expression that she need not worry, that I would take care of it.
"She arrived only moments ago Father," I said my own head lowering as I addressed him.
"Be restful daughter," he said stepping away from the girl he had called Anuk Su Namun and came towards me. "Have no fear. As always you please me, and for that I have brought you a present." He looked towards the girl now whose eyes were once more downcast. "What do you think of her?"
"She is for me?" I asked, my gaze still trained on her. I thought very highly of her though I should not tell him that.
"She is," he said, smiling at my surprise. "What do you think of her?" He asked again.
"What is she to do?" I asked, ignoring his repeated question. Despite thinking highly of her I could not answer his question fully until I knew why she had been given to me.
"She is a companion," he responded, his gaze flickering over to her. There was something in his eyes then, but it was momentary and I could not tell what it was at the time though I know now. "She is to be your cohort until she reaches the proper age to take the divine rights." So, I thought as he finished up, in the future she is to be a priestess or she is to be someone's wife.
"I think that you are far to kind to me, and that I shall enjoy having her as long as you wish it," I responded, lowering my head once more. In a palace you can never bow too much to anyone.
He turned back to me and smiled. "I thought you would like her," he said with a touch a pride in his voice.
"I do," I murmured as my eyes drifted past him towards her hunched figure. She was looking at me again with those dark eyes, and I felt a shiver run through me. What was that? "I like her very much."
It took much arguing and cunning on my part, but I convinced my father to let me take Anuk Su Namun on a tour of the palace and the palace grounds by myself – which to me meant with guards trailing twenty paces behind us instead of two. She was quiet as I showed her various rooms on various floors while handing out helpful tips for remembering how to traverse the maze of hallways that comprised my home. She would nod occasionally, but mostly she just walked her eyes darting around her surroundings keenly.
"You're not mute are you?" I asked suddenly, turning around to face her as we entered the garden. It had occurred to me seconds before that I hadn't heard her speak since we had met and I was beginning to wonder if she could. She stopped walking and the moment the last syllable left my mouth she smiled at me. It wasn't a little smile, but a huge, terrific, beatific smile that went up to her eyes making the corners crinkle slightly.
"I am not a mute," she said softly, lowering her eyes when the guards rounded the corner so that we were once again in sight.
"Oh," I said, feeling a bit foolish now for asking. "You never said anything so I thought that maybe you couldn't and I didn't want to make you feel bad or anything," I continued more to alleviate my own intense feelings of embarrassment than anything else. A mute, I thought to myself, 'ugh'.
"I was told," she said softly as we began to walk again, "not to talk unless specifically asked to do so."
I placed my hand on her upper arm, halting her progress, struck deeply by her statement for some reason that I couldn't readily identify. "In that case, I am specifically giving you permission to speak readily and freely whenever you wish to while you are in my presence. We are to be friends after all," I said all the while feeling terribly guilty, feeling like a brute for some peculiar reason as I spoke to her.
She regarded me for a moment; those mysterious eyes looking into mine, searching my face for something. "As you wish Highness," was what she finally said taking her eyes away from me and sweeping them around the courtyard in front of us.
"I am being truthful," I said, knowing where reluctance was coming from and wishing to alleviate it. "I promise, you can trust me."
"I know," was her simple response.
"How?" I asked, wondering at the chasm between the certainty of her response and her refusal to prove it with her words. She opened her mouth as if to respond but then closed it again seemingly having thought better of her response. "Readily and freely," I said when I realized she wasn't going to say anything.
"I know people," she started slowly, "who have been taken from back alleys of dusty nothing villages and never seen again for saying less than I would have. You are the princess," she finished avoiding my gaze. I would later learn that she had planned to say that only a person in my position who was trustworthy or extraordinarily dim would have been alone with her so soon after meeting her, and that she could tell I was not stupid.
I stared at her for a moment after that, and then began to walk again pointing to a golden statue of Isis that sat in the center of a fountain, and then to one of our many grain storage huts. She followed me silently, it was okay I was getting used to talking to myself, looking around with those same sharp eyes. My gaze kept drifting to her as we walked and I spoke, she was a mystery to me and I was as fascinated by her as I was by the puzzle box that I had gotten from the great western Kingdom. I wanted to get to know this girl, this Anuk Su Namun; I wanted to know what lay behind those eyes, in that mind, and in her heart.
- - - - -
I placed my hand on her thigh pressing down trying to keep her sitting down. Her skin and hair had grown healthier during the year she had been with us, and she had gained some much-needed weight. I was kneeling on the floor of my bedchamber, my body nestled in between her legs as she twisted and struggled.
"Su," I said softly, though when I looked up at her it was with a sharp movement. "If you don't sit still I'm going to have to call for the doctor." She looked down at me after I said that and let out a frustrated breath as her shoulders slumped slightly. I wasn't particularly fond of doctors but Anuk Su Namun disliked them with passion I had never encountered before. She said that it was because I got to be treated by the good ones, but I knew that there was more to it than that because when I pointed out that she could now see the good ones too it made no difference to her, and she refused to speak for the rest of the day.
"Are you sure you know what you're doing?" she asked in a rather petulant tone, her lips extended in an adorable pout. I smiled up at her.
"Yes, for the millionth time I'm sure. It's not exactly a mummification ritual you know," I said, stroking her thigh trying to get her to relax. She was strung as tightly as a bowstring. "It's not bad, you don't even need stitches, I just have to clean it and put a wrap on."
"What's in that?" she asked, stressing the last word in distaste as she looked at the bowl resting beside her foot.
"Stuff," I responded reaching for it. She did not look pleased. I retracted the hand that had been reaching for the bowl and placed my hands on her knee before resting my chin on top of them. "Su," I said. "Be at rest, I will not harm you," I continued tilting my head up so that I could see her face. As I did she looked down at me, her eyes locking onto mine. I'm not sure how long we stayed frozen in that embrace, only that it was not nearly long enough for my liking. I found that I could look into those dark orbs of hers for amazingly long stretches of time, and I had come to the conclusion that I could watch her for eternity and be completely entertained. And when she nodded her head at me, breaking the gaze we had been holding, I wanted nothing more than to press my lips to hers and take away any worry that still lingered in her eyes.
Placing the cloth I had used to apply the salve back into the bowl, I stood up carrying it over to a table by the door. Walking back over to her, I sat on the bed beside her. "You can stay here for the night if you wish to," I said, stroking the ring I wore on my smallest finger.
"Do you wish for me to stay?" she asked a moment later as she looked forward through my window, her eyes focused on something in the distance I could not see.
"If you wish to, then I wish you to," was my response. I could feel my heart beating quickly, like it did when I ran from one end of the court to the other, and my hands were beginning to sweat like when I had to make presentations in front of father or greet visitors from far off lands over the sea. This happened to me sometimes when I was around Su, and usually at the precise moment that I wished to make a good impression upon her.
"Then," she said shifting, moving for the first time since I had sat down, "I wish to."
I released a breath I didn't even know I had been holding when she said this and I stood up. "We'll have to find something for you to wear," I said moving towards one of my clothes chests. "White I think," I said looking back her thinking that white always looked especially nice against her bronzed skin.
"You mean you own another colour?" she asked from somewhere behind me. I looked back at her and she smiled at me cheekily. I had been wearing a teasing kind of frown as I turned to look at her, but as soon as I saw her I felt it start to slip from my face to be replaced by a grin of own, and probably a goofy one at that. She was always able to do that, make me smile even when I was feeling militant and didn't want to. She had the strangest effect on me that way.
- - - - -
I felt her arms wrap around my waist as her breasts pushed up against my back as she pulled me into her body. It was very hot in the room and I was finding it difficult to concentrate. I suddenly wished I had a collar to tug at.
"Are you alright Nefertiri?" I heard her whisper in my ear as her hair gently tickled my shoulder and the coolness of her metal bracelet against the exposed skin of my abdomen caused me to shudder slightly in her arms.
Father had ordered me to train with the royal guard earlier that year, for my protection. It was rare that a female should receive this sort of education, but father deemed it important that I be able to defend myself should anything happen to me where the royal guards were indisposed or inadequate protection. Anuk Su Namun had been with us for almost two years by this point and I wished for her to train as well. As important as my safety was to the kingdom hers was to me. Father was hesitant to agree, but we had not had a single trouble with her from the day she arrived and with my assurance that she was completely trustworthy he finally agreed.
"It is extremely hot in here," I managed to choke out. "Palaemon," I said looking to the man in front of me. "I think that it would be best if we trained outside today. It is extremely hot in here," I concluded, noting with some pleasure that despite the holdup in our exercise Anuk Su Namun had not yet released me from her embrace.
Palaemon looked a bit confused by my request and turned to look at Su. "Anuk Su Namun, do you also find it to be hot it here?"
"It is always hot in here master," I heard her reply, her head still pressed against mine so that I could feel her breath blowing across my skin. "But Nefertiri is more sensitive to the … heat than I. Perhaps we should move into the courtyard." I was pleased to hear her say this for I could feel the temperature rising even more as she spoke. It was really very strange; I had never known it to get so hot so quickly. Ra must have been very, very upset.
I quickly found however, that being outside with the freely blowing wind did nothing to alleviate the warmth I had been feeling since we began to train this day. In fact I was fairly certain that it was making thing's worse, yet I could not suggest that we return inside. Su already teased me about my decisiveness or lack there of it, and I was not going to give her anything else to tease me with. At those times, when she wrapped me in her arms playfully joking about something I had done, I would think that I should have been very cross, and longing for the days when she was stoic and would do nothing more than arch an eyebrow when I did something she found amusing, but I never was, I was always glad for it, pleased with how close we had become.
"Nefertiri!" Palaemon called out harshly, yanking me from my musing about the interesting contrast between the softness of Anuk Su Namun's skin and the hardness of the muscle beneath it. I turned to look at him piercingly and he immediately stood down. Truthfully I had not meant to make him feel threatened, I was simply sensitive about having been caught drifting once again, but I was the princess and no one but the Pharaoh was allowed to even contemplate speaking to me in such a tone. I could have had him killed for that, he knew this and I saw fear in his eyes.
"My apologies Palaemon," I said, taking my eyes off of him. "Shall we continue?"
"I've always said you could've defeated the army of the Scorpion King with that stare," Anuk Su Namun whispered into my ear before pulling back to enter into the hold again. As she approached me I grasped her arm, twisting it around behind her so that I was now the one pressed up against her back.
"Your point?" I asked, pushing against her arm gently causing her gasp in surprise.
"That it's not nice to make a grown man wet his pants," she responded before pushing back and grasping the back of my neck while hooking her foot behind mine carrying us both down to the ground. I landed on top of her, my body draped completely over hers as she moved me up and down minutely with the rapid raise and fall of her chest.
"Who wants to be nice?" I asked bracing my arms on either side of her and reluctantly pushing up. "Nice Princess's always end up married to Barbarian warlords," I continued straightening up from my crouch and extending my hand to her.
"And drink a lot," she said with a smile once she was upright. "They tend to drink a lot too."
"No," I said bending my knees as I entered my ready position preparing for her next attack. "That's any Princess, not just the nice ones," I continued as I spun away from her and ducked down.
- - - - -
I could feel her eyes on me again and like all of the times before I looked up just in time to see her returning her gaze to the piece of papyrus in front of her. This was a game we had been playing for while now, perhaps in some way since the day we met. I looked at her tenderly for a long moment after that until she too looked up and met my gaze. Usually I would look away, but I didn't this time and I saw confusion in her eyes and something else that I couldn't identify, though I suspect it was understanding. The feelings I hold for her used to confuse me - or maybe they never did and I just convinced myself that I didn't know – but I came to realize what they were. The time for self-denials had long since disappeared. I knew that I was attracted her, that I was in love with her, and I believed that she felt the same way about me. My father asked me sometimes how it is I feel about Anuk Sun Namun, and I always told him that I was very fond of her and that I was glad he brought her to me. He asked me if I loved her like family, like a sister, and even before I knew what it was that I was feeling, I would never answer yes, just merely that I loved her. I have sisters, half-sisters though they may be, and I never once felt the way about them that I did about Anuk Su Namun.
She looked back down at the papyrus in front of her, and I could see her hands clench before she threw her quill to the ground and stood up. She began to pace furiously, muttering under her breath as she glared at the brown, crinkled sheet on the floor. Her face was flushed and I thought that she looked absolutely beautiful. I stood up as well, though I did not try to keep up with her pacing. I didn't understand what could have upset her so quickly.
"What's wrong?" I asked. She stopped and looked over at me, then back at the floor before blowing out a frustrated breath and lowering her head.
"I don't understand this," she said, waving crossly at the papyrus she had been writing on. "I can't figure it out." I had learned that she hates failure. Nobody really likes to fail, but Anuk Su Namun hates it passionately, to her it is a personal affront.
"It is difficult," I told her, walking over to where she was standing. "It takes time," I continued, placing my hand on her shoulder.
"You can do it," she said, pulling out of my grasp and stomping around some more. "And I'm older than you," she said in a softer tone, her posture and tone making her look absolutely miserable.
"I've been taught this since I was six, you only started five years ago," I said, stepping back up to her and placing my hand on her shoulder once again. "It's amazing that you've grasped even half of what you have so quickly," I said, stroking her shoulder with my thumb. "Just give it time, you're mortal just like the rest of us."
"You're not mortal," she said, looking over at me for the first time since I approached her again.
"Yes I am," I told her with a smile, "I'm just a divine one." She smiled but it was distracted, kind of a half grin, she was thinking about something else, something important.
"I," she started pausing as she picked up my hand and held it in between hers. "I just want to be worthy of you," she continued blinking rapidly. "I need to be worthy of you," she went on her eyes shining with tears that could hardly be contained anymore. "But how can I be worthy of you when I can't even read properly?" she asked – or did she state it – before turning her face away from me and dropping my hands before stalking away towards where she had left her work. She stood there for a second then with a ferocity that surprised me kicked at the papyrus sending it floating across the room, and then at the ink bottle which sailed until it connected against the wall shattering into hundreds of little pieces with a terrible crash.
I must have gasped when the bottle broke because I remember her turning around to face me, her eyes wide then sad. I walked over to her quickly before she could say anymore, do anymore, feel anymore and I grasped her head in my hands forcing her head upwards so that she had no choice but to look at me.
"I love you," I told her, and as she looked at me I knew she understood how I meant the term.
"How can you?" she asked, trying to turn her head away but unable to because of the hold I had her in.
"The same way I breathe," I responded, moving minutely closer to her.
"I've been wearing these clothes for too long," she said, dropping her gaze to the fine pieces of expertly dyed cloth that were draped over her magnificent body. I knew what she meant; she thought that they had fooled me. That I had forgotten that she wasn't a fine, noble lady from some distance province, that I had forgotten she had been brought to me from some dusty, flea bidden town as slave for me, but I was not, nor had I ever been fooled. I cared not about her clothes, or where she was birthed, I didn't love some person I had created in my mind. I loved her, noble, vulnerable, angry, gentle, wounded, beautiful Anuk Su Namun from east of nowhere.
"Then take them off," I told her. "I never liked them anyway," I added, releasing her face and stepping back from her.
"Tiri," she said, shaking her head back and forth as if unable to do anything else. She hardly ever called me Tiri, only when she was too upset or too excited to take the time to pronounce the other two syllables.
"Do you love me?" I asked, stepping up to her again.
"You know I do," she said, still avoiding my gaze. Later as we lay together and I lazily traced patterns on her skin she would tell me how difficult it had been for her to hide how she felt while I, as she described it, 'played around in the sand box'. I realized then what a difference a mere two years could make during adolescence, my reverence for her increasing as I realized how long she had been dealing with the sometimes overwhelming feelings of need that I had only started to feel so intensely in the last year, and I promised to compensate her for the years of cold baths.
"Say it," I pleaded softly. "Please, say it."
"I love you Nefertiri," she said, her eyes coming to meet mine. "I love you," she whispered. "I love you, I love you…"
And my lips were pressed against hers, as my hands lay on the back of her neck pulling her into me, and pushing our bodies together. I had never done this before with anything other than the back of my hand and an image of her in my mind, and I had no idea whether I was doing it correctly or not, only that her arms encircled my waist and that she didn't pull away so it couldn't have been all bad.
I felt her tongue tracing my bottom lip and I gasped, a surge of heat flooding through my body making me feel as if I was on fire.
I heard her groan, it was a painful sound, and then her lips and tongue where no longer on mine and the warmth of her body was taken away from me too. I opened my eyes with my own groan of despair to see her slinking away from me, looking over at me with sad, frightened eyes.
I walked over to her, quickly assuming that when I gasped she thought she had hurt me, done something I didn't want her too. "It's okay," I said, smiling at her reassuringly as I reached out to wipe away a tear I hadn't seen before. "I liked it."
"This can't happen," she said sorrowfully. "We must continue on tomorrow like tonight never happened. Nothing good can come of it," she went on, straightening up, seemingly gaining confidence as she spoke.
"Something good has already come of it," I said. "Love, and there is nothing greater, more beautiful than love," I went on, grasping her hand. I didn't understand what she was saying, I didn't know what she knew, I hadn't seen the world that she had. She knew the evil that men did, she knew the cruelties of the world, and of rules that should not be broken – not because they couldn't be, but because the cost of breaking them was too high. She knew that to love me was to damn us both.
"Love is the most terrible thing of all," she said to me in a desperate whisper as she squeezed my hand. "It makes people do the most appalling things, it takes away reason and control, leaving people naked and helpless. And it always, it always crumbles under the rule of those who have the power."
"And who has more power than I?" I asked her, thinking that I understood the problem; thinking that I knew what place her fear was coming from.
"Your father," she said, her eyes dropping from mine. There was something in her voice when she said it, a resignation, and a desolation that I didn't understand. I was too preoccupied with trying to make her see that love was all that mattered that I didn't stop to think about what her response could have meant.
"Yes," I said happily. "And he is my father," I continued happily, thinking that I had made my point. Nobody could do anything to Pharaoh and his daughter that they did not wish. Which meant that Anuk Su Namun and I were as safe as anyone could be. And happily, thinking that I had taken care of all of her worries – desperately wanting to believe that I had taken care of all of her worries – I kissed her once more.
"Goddess forgive me," I heard her mumble when I pulled back from her, but soon her lips were upon mine once again, her tongue tracing my lips again and then entering my mouth as her arms wrapped around my waist once more pulling her towards me and my mind drifted from her utterance onto more pleasurable concerns.
I think that the taste of her will be on my lips until the day that I die. Her smell and her touch haunting me until I take my last breath. Sometimes when I close my eyes I can still feel her around me, in me, her body covering me like a blanket. Sometimes I wake up in the night and reach over for her, I'm surprised when I feel that her side of the bed is cold until I remember that she hasn't slept there for a long time now.
How we found our way to the bed I can't remember, and how our clothes got removed I can only contribute to divine intervention. But somehow, someway we did end up on my bed, our clothes discarded, her body draped over mine. She was kissing me, her hands resting on my hips as I trailed mine over the smooth expanse of her skin, tugging and clawing, trying to draw her closer to me.
I felt her smile against my neck as she started to trail kisses along it, and onto my collarbone. "Patience, Tiri, is a virtue," I heard her whisper as she placed a kiss on my chest just above the valley between my breasts before she turned her attention to the side.
"Not one of mine," I managed to choke out before her mouth captured one of my already painfully erect nipples and began to suck on it as her hand manipulated the other one. My mouth flew open, a long drawn out moan tearing from my throat as her lips, teeth, and fingers continued to attack my nipples. My hands tangled themselves in her hair, holding her head in place as my chest arched up into her mouth, begging for more of whatever she was willing to give.
My body trembled as she stroked the soft skin of my upper thigh slowly, and she leaned down placing a soft kiss on my shoulder. "I love you," she breathed out, not stopping the motions her hand was making but not doing anything more either.
"I love you too," I said, lifting her chin up and bringing our lips together heatedly. "Please," I whispered softly when we separated.
"It's going to hurt for a second," she said as she placed a gentle kiss just behind my ear, her breath tickling me and making me shiver. I nodded my head, and she kissed me again, her hand now beginning to wander upwards.
I groaned as I felt her fingers slip between my folds for the first time, my hips bucking towards her hand. Her lips where attached to my neck again, a spot I would come to learn she was rather fond of, and I could feel her lips curve up, barely hearing her whisper "somebody's…happy" before she began to move her hand again and I became distracted.
My breath was coming in gasps now, and my heart was pounding so fast that I expected it to come tearing out of my chest at any moment. Her lips had gone back attacking my nipples, and I had long since lost the ability to do anything but moan and arch. "Are you sure?" she asked softly as I felt her fingers still.
"Ummm," was all I was able to get out, but I think that it conveyed my message because she whispered her love to me and then I felt a momentary pricking sensation which caused me to hiss for a second before it was gone. Relaxing again, I could now feel her fingers inside of me, moving slowly back and forth and my eyes closed and raised my hips.
"Are you okay?" she asked, stilling her fingers. My verbal skills still deserting me, I responded by grasping her wrist and starting to move her hand again. "I see," was her response before she leaned up to kiss me once more.
As she pushed up into me one last time my breath hitched and my hips started to buck uncontrollably as fireworks went off behind my eyelids and the damn broke. I had never felt anything like it before, it was like I was floating, like she was touching me everywhere at once and I was no longer aware of the room, or the bed or anything other than her and me, locked together in this embrace.
I remember her kissing away the tears that had start to run down my cheeks without my permission, and I remember her wrapping me in her arms holding me and whispering to me as my breathing slowed. I remember feeling her warmth on my thigh as she unconsciously pressed against me as we lay together and I remember smiling at her mischievously and saying 'ah'. I remember sucking on her skin the salty wetness driving me wild, and I remember kissing and licking the soft skin of her thigh from the knee up as I kneeled in between her legs, the cool tile of the floor creating a pleasure bubbling inside of me. I remember the sound of her moans, and the way her body moved against mine as if trying to get me to devour her, and I remember the look on her face as her release washed over her, and the joy of holding her in my arms as her ragged breathing slowed. I remember holding her, and waking up to see her head resting on my chest as the first rays of the morning sun rushed through my window, and remember the feeling of absolute peace that I felt lying there with my love, my lover in my arms.
"You're mine," I told her as I poked a finger to her chest after she woke up. I was only half teasing.
"I've never been anything else," she said, and she was only half teasing. "And you?" she asked capturing the finger I had resting over her heart and placing a kiss on the tip of it.
"I'm yours," I told her, and with that I brought our lips together once again.
- - - - -
I turned around to see my father approaching and put down my quill.
"Where is Anuk Su Namun?" he asked, looking around the room.
"She's gone to the market," I responded with a touch of amusement as he continued to look around the room as if he didn't believe me. Of course some of her things were scattered around the room, which may have given the impression that she was still or had recently been there, but the fact was that her things were always there, and had been for over a year. "You may check under the bed if you'd like," I offered. He looked at me and smiled.
"It isn't often that I find you alone these days," he responded, folding his arms behind his back. "The reason I asked is because the matter I wish to discuss with you concerns her."
"I see," was all I said as I tried to ignore the sudden tightness in my stomach. "Is there a problem?"
"She has not been sleeping in her chambers," he said, beginning to pace in front of my desk. "This was only recently brought to my attention, or I would have been to see you before this. I've been told that this has been the case for a…troubling amount of time, and that now she seems to have ceased to sleep there at all."
"There is no cause for concern," I responded in what I hoped was a casual tone though I was surprised that he would be so concerned with where it was that Anuk Su Namun slept that he should come to see me about it, that he had people reporting such matters to him. "She has been staying with me those nights."
"With you?" he asked, and to my relief, while sounding confused, he seemed pacified.
"Yes," I responded. "I did not realize that it would cause a problem. I have been helping her with her cuneiform, as you know, it sometimes keeps us late, and she is on the other side of the palace. I have more than enough space," I continued, watching him closely to see if he suspected any deception on my part.
"It seems an awful lot of time to have her here," he responded. I could not read him.
"She is my closest friend," I replied. "We do not get to spend as much time together now that her duties extend beyond merely being my playmate. It seemed the most…efficient solution to the problem, as I do enjoy her company, and she is not needed at night," I continued, willing my heartbeat to return to its normal cycle.
He smiled at me, one of the few genuine ones I have ever seen him wear. "That is pleasing to hear. That you two are getting along so well," he said, and I could tell that he was indeed very pleased with the situation. That worried me, as he had never before seemed interested in how I got along with anyone, anyone other than Anuk Su Namun that is. "I have been searching for the proper time to tell you this," he went on.
"Tell me what father?" I questioned gently.
"You were too young when she first came, and I didn't want to do anything that would cause friction between the two of you," he continued, puffing out his chest as he did when he was about to say something important. I looked at him with dread. I didn't know what he was going to say only that every fiber of my being was informing me that whatever it was I was most likely going to hate it. "You see, Anuk Su Namun is to be my wife, and I wanted nothing more than for her and my daughter to get along. The two people most important to me," he said, kissing me on the forehead happily. "I think now you'll understand why I've been so indulgent with your extravagances towards her, and why I was alarmed to learn that she had been gone at night."
"I do," I answered in a steady voice amazed at my ability to sound as if my world wasn't crashing down around me like a tidal wave. "This has been the arrangement since she came?" I asked. "She has known of it this the whole time?"
"Yes, yes, she was informed of her full responsibilities before she was taken from her village," he went on jovially. "I think she must have been very pleased to find out how well you two got along."
I nodded weakly.
"Well, I have matters to attend to. When Anuk Su Namun returns to will send her to me?" he asked.
"Yes father," I responded, returning my eyes to the papyrus I had been working on before he entered. As I heard the door shut the quill I had just picked up slid from my limp fingers clattering onto the tabletop as I stared blankly into the distance. A moment later I pushed the papyrus away and placed my head down on the top of the table. I didn't feel so well.
- - - - -
I felt lips at my neck and I leaned into the contact unconsciously a smile tugging at the corners of my mouth. Then I felt her lips moving against mine and I turned slightly to increase the contact. She moaned into my mouth and I could feel her lips curve playfully, before she deepened the kiss, one of her hands slipping inside my tunic as she continued to assault my lips. The taste of my favorite berry was upon her tongue and as I tasted it for the first time my eyes opened and I was dragged back to the present.
She kept my lower lip ensnared between her teeth, tugging it mischievously before releasing me and smiling wickedly, an impish energy surrounding her, making her glow. "Look what I got," she said as she dangled the vine in front of my face. "It wasn't easy either," she went on, moving to sit on me so that she was straddling my lap. "But don't believe what Phaiki tells you. I only threatened the male members of his family," she went on, bending down to kiss me on the tip of my nose. "Tiri?" she asked when I didn't respond or try to steal the fruits from her hand as I usually did before finally bribing her with promises of honey and sensual pleasures. "Are you okay?" she asked, her voice rising with concern. "Why were you sitting like that?"
"We need to talk," I said, pushing on her thighs to make her move off of me. She looked at me questioningly when I made this motion; I had never before refused any of her physical advances. "Now," I said when she failed to move. Silently she placed her gift on the table and stood up be it reluctantly. I soon followed.
- - - - -
I spun around to face her, my hands clenched tightly at my sides. Her eyes were downcast, her shoulders slumped. She looked utterly miserable and for just a moment I was glad for it.
"You could have told me!" I accused. "All these years, I didn't even suspect. I should have seen it, the way he looked at you, the way…" I trailed off as I spoke, an idea forming in my mind. "Have you…"
"No!" she said forcefully grasping me about the shoulders. "By all the gods no, and I don't want to. I never wanted too, Nefertiri," she said her head dropping down. "My family was starving and Pharaoh offered to provide for them if I … if I agreed to his conditions. What else could I do, we were dying. You should have seen my brother, he was like a skeleton and sick all the time," she went on her voice getting softer as she spoke. "I had to agree, and … and I was going to be sold sooner or later so why not to a Pharaoh who could feed my family?" she said letting go of me. "I was settled to the idea, and your father was nice, in our first meetings he barely touched me, a hand on the shoulder here or there, but nothing more. I would get worse going to the market. And then there was you, I thought that it wouldn't be so bad to have a friend, to get to act like my age for a while," she went on, shaking her head. "And you were so…so, you," she continued, her voice cracking. "I never thought I would fall in love with you, I never wanted to, but I couldn't help it."
I remember walking over to her, my intentions pure and platonic, but as soon as I came within her sphere I drew her into my arms and held her as her body shuddered with tears, stroking her hair as her head rested on my shoulder. I finally understood what she was talking about that night, why she had asked for forgiveness before we made love that first time. She knew from the beginning that what we had would have to end, and still she loved me, so well, so completely.
"We'll run away," I told her as she began to calm. "There's an island off the coast of Greece." She smiled at me sweetly as I said this, though her eyes were sad. I knew as I said it that it could never happen, and she knew it too.
"He would hunt us to the ends of the earth," she said softly, grasping my hands.
"We could tell him that you're infertile," I offered, getting rather desperate now.
"He'd want to make sure," she responded, looking away as she said it. I too lowered my gaze as I realized how he'd go about wanting to test the claim. An image I wish that I could permanently remove from my brain, but that seems to be stuck there for the long run.
"Did you see any pretty girls at the market?" I asked, thinking that maybe if we could find him someone else he would leave her to me.
"No," she responded. "You weren't there." I smiled at that and hugged her to me, as close as it was possible for us to get.
"We should have a picnic in the valley," I said, releasing her from my desperate hold. "We've already got fruit," I said, looking at the table where she had left the berries.
"I have to go see your father," she responded, looking at the berries longingly.
"Then see him, and come back to me," I told her. "We are women," I went on, "our lives are ones of compromise. You may be contracted to him, but you are mine," I finished before bringing our lips together, kissing her with a bruising intensity.
"If anyone ever finds out about us now," she said when we parted. "You're his daughter and before you knew about the arrangement he would have only gone after me…but now…"
"He would kill us both, I know," I told her. "And I don't care. I would rather die with you than live without you."
"Let us hope it never comes to that," she responded, kissing me gently before reluctantly pulling away and heading towards the door.
- - - - -
I was standing on my balcony looking out into the courtyard when I heard the door to my bedchambers open. I knew that it was Anuk Su Namun for she was the only person presumptuous enough to enter my room uninvited. So I continued to stand at the balcony the breeze blowing across my face as I waited for her. I heard her footsteps stop shortly before she reached the balcony and when she did not continue any further I turned around.
"What is that?" I breathed out in a horrified tone as I walked towards her.
"Body paint," she responded calmly. I looked up at her; it was never good when she was this calm.
"I can see that. Why are you covered in it?" I asked, walking around her. I stretched out my hand to touch her only to have her step out of reach.
"Do not touch it," she said, remaining still now that I could not touch her. "It is security. No one can touch me without your father being able to tell," she continued, her words laced with an anger that would have been undetectable to anyone who had not spent as much time around her as I.
I stood there routed in my spot, unable to move. I think that I was in something similar to shock. It was too much for me; this day had been too much for me. Five hours ago, she had been mine and I had been hers and the world was a glorious place if for no other reason than that, than our love. And now, now I could not even touch her for fear of my father. A sob emerged from somewhere deep inside of me and I raised my hand to my mouth, covering it as I turned around, away from her.
She said nothing as walked away from her back to my balcony, and she remained silent still as I braced my hands on the ledge leaning on it for support. As my body shook with the effort to suppress tears I heard her take a step closer only to stop. What was she to do? She couldn't ruin her makeup by touching me, by hugging me. And as I thought this, I was seized by an anger of an intensity I had never felt before, and I spun around to face her.
"We love each other," I said fiercely, finding her in the position if not the same spot that I had left her in.
"We do," she responded her gaze level with mine, her eyes calm.
"What else is there?" I asked, I don't know if I expected a real answer from her or not, only that I did not like what she returned with.
"Life," she replied as if reading my mind. She knew what I was planning to do and was trying to make me think, but I had thought, and I knew what had to be done.
I grasped her face between my hands and I kissed her, I drew my hands down along her arms smudging the gold and black paint as I went along and I stepped back my face and hands covered in the golden colour of her skin. When I looked at her, she grinned at me, that grin I loved so much then she shook her head.
"What have you done?" she asked picking up a discarded towel and walking over to me cleaning the paint off of my face.
"Stay here," I told her backing away when she went to clean my hands. "I'm going to see my father."
"Nefertiri," she said warningly. "One day you will push him too far, you may be his daughter but he is still Pharaoh."
"Then let us pray today is not that day," I said, sweeping towards the door. "Let no one in," I told the guards as I left the room.
* * * * * *
"What is this!?!" I raged at my father as I burst into the war room. He looked up at me surprised, more surprised than his advisors if that was at all possible. "What is this!?!" I asked again waving my golden hands in front of him. His eyes were wide, I had never talked to him a tone like this before, I had never even raised my voice to him. I had more sense than that, before. But now that voice, the one that whispers decorum, and tact and appropriate behavior in your ear during difficult times had left me, no doubt still on my balcony shaking with sorrow.
"Leave us," my father said to the man gathered around him. "Now," he said standing and they made their exit. "How dare you speak to me in this fashion," he boomed his eyes wide now with anger as he advanced on me. Yet I saw not the danger in the situation, I saw nothing but red.
"What is she, your cat? A precious book that you can lock away like gold!?! How could you do this to her? She's a spectacle, you've told everybody she's whore!" I yelled, stepping towards him. "Is she to be made to live like a leper, to have no contact with anyone? Not even me?" I asked my voice fading and faltering as I went on. I turned away from him, not wishing for him to see anymore in my face that I had not already given away with my words. I began to pace, they were having a bad effect on me.
"She is to be my wife," he said in a softer tone than the one he used before my diatribe began. It always pacified him to see me cry. "I must make sure that she remains faithful to me until our wedding."
"You question her virtue," I accused, the hypocrisy of the statement not at all lost on me. I was trying to convince him to trust that she would be faithful to him so that I could have her back in my bed. Yes, I recognized the hypocrisy of it all, I just didn't care.
"I wished not to speak of these matters with you, but it is obvious that you need to hear this," he said, walking back over to his chair and sitting down. "Anuk Su Namun is a woman now, and as girls grow into womanhood they change, they need certain things they did not need before. Physical intimacy is what I am talking about. It becomes like a fire raging in their bellies until they can see nothing, feel nothing but it. Sometimes it can cause the most virtuous of woman to…act against her nature." My expression must have been as incredulous as the emotions I was feeling for he smiled patronizingly at me and continued. "You have not yet reached this point, but soon you will and precautions will have to be taken then as well." I turned to glare at him, precautions indeed. "I know it will be hard for you, with you two having grown so close, but Anuk Su Namun has grown beyond the comfort that you can provide her with and she must stay…alone until the time comes that I can comfort her."
As he finished I let out a shuddering breath and turned away from him barely resisting the urge to place my hands over my ears in an attempt to purge his speech from my memory.
"Surely," I said, turning towards him, "surely she maybe be allowed to be in her natural state some…"
"Nefertiri, I know that this is difficult, but I must insist that you respect my decision. I have been more than generous with your demands over the years, but not with this. The only time that Anuk Su Namun will not be made up is while she sleeps, trains and bathes, no more, no less. This you must come to accept as she has," he interrupted, bracing his hands on the table. "Go now and clean yourself up, then call Tedric to reapply her paint." With that he returned to the map he had been looking at previous to my entry into the room.
* * * * *
I watched the sundial closely. Finally deciding it was time I burst into the outer room of the bath chamber Anuk Su Namun was bathed in demanding entry.
"Highness, it is occupied," the attendant tried to tell me, but I moved around him.
"Than it shall be occupied by one more," I told him. "I have an appointment with the Delian priestess that I must keep and my chambers are broken. I can't use my father's, and I will hardly use a common one. Step aside, now." And he did and I entered to see Anuk Su Namun about to enter the tub. She turned to see what the commotion was and upon seeing me looked slightly surprised before replacing her mask of indifference. I turned to the attendant.
"I must bath in here today, your services won't be necessary," I told her, walking across the room, leaving the outer door open so that she could leave through it. She looked as if she was about to protest and I looked at her commandingly. "You will NOT see the royal body unclothed," I told her then turned towards the door expectantly.
Once the door was closed I turned to see Anuk Su Namun trying rather unsuccessfully to smother her laughter. "You will not see the royal body unclothed?" she mouthed to me before breaking down again. I smiled, it had been a long time since I had seen her this relaxed, and even longer since I had seen her laugh. The last time was when she brought me those berries, that was a month before.
"Am I not to see the royal body unclothed either?" she asked, looking at me coyly through her eye lashes when I failed to join her in the water. I smiled in response and shrugged off my dressing gown. As I crossed the floor to join her, her eyes remained trained on my body and as soon as I lowered myself into the water her body was beside mine her lips crushing against mine desperately as her hands roamed my body, drawing me closer to her. I sighed and leaned into her, burying my face into her neck as she continued to caress me. Finally, I could breath again.
I lay her down on the tile by the tub, her gasp as her back hit the cold floor warming me inside. It moments like this, when we managed to be together we knew that our time was fleeting as spared with any pretense of romance. I covered her body with mine, bringing my lips to hers as one of my hands found her breast and the other traveled south to the site of one of her other treasures.
I placed my mouth over hers, swallowing her moan as my fingers moved in and out of her at an increasing pace and her hips drove upwards as she desperately tried to keep contact with my fingers at all times. As I took a nipple into my mouth I reached up with my thumb stroking her clit as she bore down on my fingers, a strangled cry tore loose from her lips before she bit down on her lower lip in an attempt to stay quiet. I could hear her breath coming in desperate gasps now, her mouth open and her eyes closed as her body undulated frantically under my touch until her hips rose one last time and she flooded my fingers with her pleasure.
"I have to go," I told her, rising out of the water, the cooling water droplets on my skin and thought of having to leave her again causing me to shiver. She nodded, her eyes downcast before she turned away from me and submerged herself under the water before rising and smoothing her hair back, ignoring me as I put my dressing gown on. The first time she reacted this way I felt as if I would break down into tears, but I know now that it was the way she had to deal with our separation, that it would've hurt her too much to watch me leave again and again. As I reached the door I heard – like always – a whispered, barely audible 'I love you' before I had to open the doors and leave once more, trying to contain my sorrow until I was safely behind closed doors once again and could weep freely.
* * * * * *
I turned my head to the side when I heard my door open, my heart skipping a beat. It had been months since the person walking through it at this hour had been Anuk Su Namun but somewhere inside I kept hoping that it would be her. It wasn't though it was Phaiki come to watch over me as she had started to do since my depression began. It was ritual that we had had before Anuk Su Namun came to the palace, and one that we fell back into effortless when she was taken away. Every night Phaiki would come and comb out my hair, telling me about her day. She used to ask me about mine, when I was a child I used to regale her with stories of things that had seemed important at the time, but she had learned now that I did not want to speak.
"Normally," she began hesitatingly, "I would not bring up the subject, but considering your affection for her I thought that you might want to know something I learned today," Phaiki said as she brushed my hair.
"This is about Anuk Su Namun I suppose," I responded, playing idly with a hair clip that had been resting on the dresser.
"Yes. I heard your father talking with Imhotep," she began.
"Imhotep," I said more to myself than Phaiki. "I don't like him," I said, shaking my head. "What were they talking about?"
"Anuk Su Namun," Phaiki responded. "Your father has noticed that she has become increasingly despondent. Her responses to him have been polite, adequate, but the warmth he had come to associate with her over the years has faded." I merely nodded, encouraging her to continue. "He was asking Imhotep to cast a spell."
"A spell?" I asked looking back at her in surprise. "Surely he wouldn't be so foolish."
"I heard quite plainly. He asked Imhotep to make her love him," Phaiki responded.
"A love spell," I whispered under my breath. "The only…it is forbidden, the darkest magic is…" I said, trailing off. "When?"
"Tonight, it was already arranged. Your father was providing him with a sample of her hair," Phaiki told me sadly.
I stood up suddenly, causing Phaiki to take a startled step backwards. A love spell, I couldn't believe it. How could he be so foolish, so desperate? And Imhotep, to trust him with something so precious, so important. I knew that my father liked the man, but there was something about him that put me on guard. He was too shrewd, to calculating for my likes. He was a powerful man who believed he was destined for more than what he had and he was in a position where he could move no further without removing someone else. This made him a dangerous man.
"Where?" I asked, turning around to face her. "Never mind," I said, cutting off the reply she was about to make. "I know where." Imhotep's underground lair, it was where he conducted all of his rituals. I had only been there once, but I knew that I could find it again.
As I reached the last of the darkened steps there was a blinding flash of light. When the light faded I looked into the room just in time to see Anuk Su Namun crumble and fall to the floor, her body folding bonelessly as it hit the dirt covered ground.
"What have you done to her!?!" I demanded, entering into the chamber. He looked up at me, seemingly surprised at first then smug, a smile stretching across his birdlike features.
"He is not worthy of her," Imhotep said calmly, his lips curving in distaste. My father was ten times the man he was, and in any other case I would have told him where to shove it, but he was right. Anuk Su Namun was too good, even for my father.
"No shit, Socrates, that still doesn't explain what you've done to her," I responded, advancing on him.
"She has a strong spirit, endless, beautiful," he said, gazing down at her prone body softly. "She deserves someone who can show her eternity…and beyond. Someone who can love her throughout the ages." I stared at him as he spoke. I recognized the gaze he wore as he looked at her for I had seen a version of it on my face as I gazed at her in a mirror and also in my father's. But it looked different on him, twisted. His love was sinister, something I could never say of my father's love for her even though it killed me inside.
My eyes drifted to the side, my eyes catching a pale piece of cloth. Focusing on it, I saw that it was not a cloth at all, but a doll, a doll of Imhotep and beside it laid her comb. The comb I had given her for her birthday her second year with us.
"You've cursed her," I said, walking over to her body and kneeling down.
"I've liberated her," he responded, looking down at me with contempt. "I've mated our souls."
I looked up at him as he said this in a state of shock and horror.
"You sick, twisted, demented little bastard," I ground out, looking at him. "When I tell…" but I was distracted from threatening him as I heard Anuk Su Namun moan in my arms and I looked down at her gently stroking her hair.
"Su?" I said softly. "Are you alright?"
"A bit fuzzy around the edges," she said with a weak smile. "But other than that," she said sitting up her gaze traveling past me towards Imhotep, "I'm perfect," she continued, her smile growing as she stood up. I remained crouched on the floor as I watched her stand up walk into his open arms, my stomach churning as I watched them grin at me faces pressed together, cheek to cheek.
Stepping away from her for a moment, he stepped towards me, bending down so that his mouth was next to my ear. I shuddered in aversion at his close proximity but could not seem to move away from him. "You won't do anything," he said to me softly, "if you ever want your…Su," he smiled at this, "back. Return to your chambers Nefertiri, there's nothing here for you now."
"My father," I started weakly.
"Your father will not believe you, Anuk Su Namun knows that when something must be done, you do it," he said, leaning back so that he could fully enjoy the pain etched across my features. "She will play her part."
Wrenching my eyes away from him, I turned to look at her, to look into those eyes I had come to know so well, but when I meet them I didn't recognize what I saw. It was like looking at a stranger.
"Go to sleep little girl," she whispered in a hard, mocking tone, her lips curving up so that she appeared to be almost snarling. "Playtime's over."
* * * * * *
I've know her since I was child, and she has always been and remains the most beautiful entity I have ever been blessed enough to lay eyes on. I stare up at her, lips pointed yellow her breath slightly uneven as she looks at me with those deep, dark eyes, her lips curving slightly giving the impression of a smile. She is feeling pleased with herself, and I suppose she should be for I still love her, and she can now break my heart as easily as she breathes. She is not the woman I once knew, the woman I wish I could know again, but despite that, despite that fact that she now stands over my aching body smirking at me smugly, teasing me softly as the entire court watches me, I love her. I love her so much that I can feel it consuming me, engulfing me like the fires of Hades. And as I hear her voice, her low, soft voice and look into eyes that used to love me, I swear that I can see some affection in them, a shadow of our love. She smiles because she has won more than this exhibition, she smiles because she knows that whether or not I have her she will always have me. I grasp her now outstretched hand, my lips' parting slightly as our skin makes contact and I allow her to pull me to my feet. Gods, she's beautiful.
I feel the wind whipping in my face and am shocked into blinking. It's dark out where I am, yet the last thing I remember is being in a golden court looking into her gorgeous, cold eyes, and longing to kiss those delicately painted perfectly shaped lips. I feel a hand on my shoulder and I turn around sharply, still feeling terribly displaced.
"Another dream?" Rick asks his hand resting on my shoulder. It feels large and cumbersome to me now, coming from the place I just been and from the viewpoint of the woman I just was.
"Not dreams, memories," I murmur, my eyes drifting about to look at the clouds behind the confines of our balloon. "At least now I know why I was looking at Meela's chest when I was tied to the fiery platform," I thought to myself, or at least I thought I had thought to myself.
"What?" Rick asked, craning his neck around so that he could see my face.
"I said, at least know I know why I recognized Meela when I was tied to the fiery platform," I responded. "What did you hear?" I asked him, trying not to think about how my heart had started thundering in my chest as I saw her walk across the room that night in the museum, her dress lovingly hugging her body, her skin lit up beautifully in the firelight. I tried not to think about how thinking of her now I can feel a faint aching in my chest and a tingling somewhere lower.
"Nothing," he said, shaking his head and kissing me on the cheek. "The altitude and…Jonathon!" he yelled, turning around and stalking after my brother. "Let go! Let go right now, Mister!" Rick said testily as he wrestled with Jonathon for the golden scepter snuggled in his arms. "If you don't let go by the count of three, I swear to God that when I get this rod outta your hands I'm gonna shove it so far up your ass that…"
"Alright, alright," Jonathon responded, letting go the scepter with a sigh. "Evie, can't you control this beast?" he asked, turning to look at me pleadingly before glowering in Rick's direction.
"If I wanted to I suppose," I responded, grinning at him, my smile growing as I saw him 'humph' and turn away.
"Rick?" I called as he made his why to cockpit - or whatever it is that you call it in an air balloon.
"Yes, Honey?" he responded dutifully. He really could be a gentleman when he wanted to be.
"Let's make sure he stays dead this time," I called back him as the low tones of Nefertiri and Anuk Su Namun's laughter played in my mind like a haunting melody and Nefertiri's memories teased my senses. "There's a soul he's got that needs to be returned," I continued softly, looking up at the moon, and noting that at least it hadn't changed in two thousand years.
Good? Okay? Don't let this woman near a computer or pen again? Please let me know what you think (email@example.com), and thanks for reading :)