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CHAPTER 65 ~ SOUVENIRS
Sinking. Sinking. Murky water closing over his head. Can't move! Desperately holding his breath. Can't move! Holding. Holding. Lungs burning. Can't move! No more. No more. Exhale.
Gunther's eyes snapped open and he stared into the darkness. Next to him, Valois uttered a soft, wordless sound in his sleep, reaching out to pull Gunther tight against his body, as if sensing his distress without waking. Breathing hard, Gunther curled up close to him, unable to stop shivering for a moment.
Why the hell had he just had a nightmare about drowning? Because he was on a ship? That was just stupid. He was a good swimmer, and there was no way the Nile was anywhere near deep enough to swallow this ship. In fact, it was barely three metres in depth at some points; a fact that the pilot had proudly informed them of on a trip to the bridge a couple of days ago. Piloting a Nile cruise ship was a family affair, the knowledge being handed down from father to son, the winding shallows mapped in each pilot's memory through years of navigation.
Gunther sighed softly into the darkness, relaxing against Valois's warm body. Stupid fucking nightmare. Nice things, think about nice things. Sunbathing up on deck. Relaxing in the hot tub. Splashing around in the pool... well, okay. Maybe not the pool. Not right at this moment, anyway.
Oh, and buying something for Mort and Natalie. That was something they had yet to do. Mort had told them he'd love some real Egyptian art, or even some Egyptian art history books, if they could find any. A quick look through the guide books he'd found in the covered lounge area the evening before had told Gunther they would soon be docking near a small town where natural mineral makeup was still made as it was thousands of years ago, and he was pretty sure Natalie would love some of that. Then there was finding a little something nice for Esther—who would probably appreciate anything arty as much as Mort would—and a gift for her father, who had taken Mort in like another son and looked after him while Gunther and Valois were on honeymoon.
Speaking of art... Gunther smiled drowsily as he thought of the wedding gift Mort and Esther had worked on together. They'd handed it over after the reception, once they were all back home, and when he and Valois had opened it, Gunther could see why.
Valois had burst out laughing, and within seconds Gunther had joined him, while Mort and Esther giggled and clapped, happy that their combined efforts had paid off. The gift was a large painting done in cartoon style, of Valois riding a broomstick that had empty tin cans tied onto it with string, and 'Just Married' written on a sign slapped to the back of it. As if that wasn't funny enough, they'd painted Gunther sitting behind Valois on the broom, hanging on for dear life, legs akimbo and mouth open, with a big exclamation mark above his head.
It was perfect. Perfectly cheeky, and just... per... perfect.
Morning brought with it a kiss from his husband, a lazy breakfast at the water-level restaurant, and all memory of the nightmare forgotten. Cocktails by the pool, the sun's heat relaxing him as it sank into his bones, the scent of tanning lotion, and the sun-warmed pages of a good book while Valois dozed on the lounger beside him.
A few hours later, they both stood with several other passengers at the starboard rail of the sun deck as the ship cruised past a small village. Little kids ran along the bank, waving and shouting hello, and Gunther pointed out to Valois several guys who had floated a pontoon out into the shallows by the riverbank and actually driven a car onto it.
"What the hell..?" Gunther murmured as he watched them splash in after it. Then: "Oh my god, they're washing it!" he exclaimed in delight, as they started scrubbing the car with old rags they'd taken into the water with them.
"Well that's certainly original," Valois murmured. "And, I suppose it saves them the effort of carrying buckets of water up from the river."
"Hello! Hello!" Several young voices called up from below. They leaned over the railing a little and saw a gaggle of small boys paddling around in little boats no bigger than coracles. "Scarf?" one of the boys called up, holding up some plastic-wrapped packages. "Five simoleon only. Nice scarf for a lady!"
Gunther chuckled. "Okay, I'm gonna get one for Natalie," he said, heading back to the lounger and digging into the bag he'd brought up from the cabin with him. He took a five simoleon coin out from his wallet and made his way back to the railing.
"Scarf for a lady, mister?" the same young lad hollered, spotting the coin in his fingers.
"I want a green one!" Gunther called down. "Have you got a green one?"
The boy rooted around by his feet in the tiny boat and brought out a plastic-wrapped green scarf. "I throw!" He hurled it upwards, and Gunther swore as he reached out to swipe at it. Valois, too, made a grab for it, and Gunther suspected that a little magic brought it right into his hand. In return, he carefully dropped the coin over the side, and the boy caught it, beaming up at him. Several of their fellow passengers were also negotiating deals, with packages sailing up—and sometimes down again—in quick succession until the boys could make no more sales and they paddled off.
Back on the lounger, Gunther opened the package and took out the scarf to take a look at it. It was gorgeous: a pale emerald green, embroidered with gold, orange, and shades of bright and dark green, and edged with a delicate tasselled fringe.
"She's going to love this," he murmured. "I can't believe it was only five simoleons."
Valois took a sip from his drink and chuckled. "You are not fully acquainted with the Egyptian mindset, mon cœur," he said. "You could probably have haggled him down to one or two at most."
Rolling his eyes and laughing, Gunther folded the scarf and put it back in the bag. "I think that paddling one of those tiny little boats right up next to this monster of a ship deserves a tip just for sheer bravery."
"Good point," Valois observed. "And it looks as if we are approaching the town where we shall be docked for the remainder of the day. I think some lunch is in order, and then a little exploration?"
"Sounds good to me. And souvenir-hunting, too. We have to get something for Mort, Esther, and Ted."
"Bien sûr," Valois murmured. "If there is one thing Egyptians excel at, it is souvenirs."
"And tombs, palaces, farming, brewing, pyramids, history—"
Valois laughed, placing a gentle hand over Gunther's mouth to shut him up. "That began to acquire overtones of 'What have the Romans ever done for us?', mon cœur."
Gunther kissed that palm, his eyes glinting with humour as Valois drew it away again, still smiling.
"Let's get dressed and have some lunch."
"He looks like he's just waiting for customers," Gunther murmured a couple of hours later, as they strolled towards a small mud home that had advertised souvenirs on a wooden board at the end of a long stone wall. On spotting them, the man who was slumped with boredom in a chair beneath the shaded shop door awning leapt to his feet, his face wreathed in smiles.
"Welcome!" he exclaimed. "Welcome to Amir's fine souvenir emporium! We have many beautiful things here, for excellent prices!"
They reached him, and he shook Gunther's hand enthusiastically, before doing the same to Valois. "Come in!" he enthused. "Come in!"
Gunther took a step forward, but when he realised that Valois wasn't following him, he looked back.
Valois was frozen to the spot, his face—once magically tanned—a sickly shade of white. He was glancing around frantically, one hand moving slowly to his belly, the other covering his mouth.
Gunther hurried over to him. "Are you okay, love?" he murmured. "What's the matter?"
"I..." Valois whispered, his gaze flicking over Gunther's shoulder to where the shopkeeper was approaching. "I do not feel well, mon cœur. I think... I think I should sit in the shade for a while."
"Is everything all right?" Amir asked. "Perhaps the food is not good for his stomach? I know of a good remedy for tourist belly. I can make some for him, perhaps?"
Valois held up a hand and shook his head, smiling weakly. "Thank you, my friend, but no. I shall sit in the shade over there. Gunther, will you help me?"
"Of course." Worried, Gunther put an arm around Valois's waist and helped him to walk slowly across the sunny courtyard to where a fabric awning flapped in the slight breeze near the wall. He settled Valois on the couch beneath the shade afforded by the awning and crouched in front of him.
"Are you sure you don't want to go back to the ship?" he murmured.
"I will be fine," Valois said softly. He still looked worryingly ill. "Go in and find something nice for Mortimer."
"Well... if you're sure you'll be okay out here. It's probably air-conditioned inside—"
"Out here in the shade is fine, mon cœur. The air is fresher outside than in."
"True." Gunther wanted to kiss him, but he knew that a public display of affection between two men was not a good idea in such a conservative country. "I'll be as quick as I can."
"I hope your friend is all right," Amir said, as he led Gunther into the shop. "For many westerners our diet can be not good for the belly."
"I think perhaps he's just had a little too much sun. I'll take him back to the ship as soon as I can, but in the meantime I need to buy some gifts. I want some art for my son and his girlfriend, a small gift for a friend who is looking after my son while I'm away, and something for my secretary."
"Ah, art!" Amir's pleasant face lit up. "I have beautiful art for you here, created by local artists. Faithful replicas of original paintings in the Pharaohs' tombs. Here, see?"
Ten minutes later, Gunther waited while Amir carefully rolled and packaged the paintings he'd purchased, tucked the mineral makeup into a cute little black vanity case, and nestled the soapstone carvings of scarab beetles down among them. As he looked around the shop to see if there was anything else he liked, his eye was caught by, well... an eye.
"That's amazing," he murmured. "What is it?"
Amir looked up. "That is the Eye of Horus, sir. There are many evil things in this world. Ghosts and spirits. The Eye of Horus wards off all evil. Every home should have one."
"It's beautiful. What's it made of?"
"This one? This is an original." Amir leaned closer. "Made thousands of years ago," he whispered. "I should not have it, but I use it as a model for the copies that I sell. Many precious stones and metals are in this one."
Gunther could see that. It seemed almost alive, the stones glinting even in the shadows of the corner.
"Would you sell that original?" he ventured.
"It is very valuable, sir. Not for a price that you would pay for a simple souvenir."
Gunther just grinned at him. "Name it."
Amir raised an eyebrow. "Well, I have never thought of a price, but... five thousand simoleons?"
Silently, Gunther held out his credit card. Amir took it with a soft laugh. "Sold!" He swiped the card and Gunther signed for it, as Amir took the decoration very carefully off the wall.
"It will not stand to be wrapped," he murmured. "It is very powerful, more powerful than all of my replicas. Do not fear that it will break; it will take care of itself. In fact, legends say that the original Eyes of Horus always find their way to where they need to be. This one clearly needs to be with you now." He paused and looked at Gunther. "There is always a reason for their choice," he added. "Guard yourself well against evil."
With the decoration safely tucked in the vanity case, Gunther thanked Amir, took a calling card from him, and left the shop.
Outside, Valois seemed to be dozing on the couch, and Gunther approached quietly. The sun was moving around to mid afternoon now, and the shade was moving with it.
"Hey there," Gunther murmured as he crouched in front of the couch. "Feeling any better?"
"Mmf." Valois opened one eye. "Not much. Did you get all you needed?"
"Yeah. Some really nice art for Mort and Esther, scarab beetle carvings for Ted, makeup and this vanity case for Natalie. Oh, and I've gotta just show you this." He set the vanity case down and unzipped it. "The shopkeeper said it was an original," he continued as he took the Eye of Horus out and laid it on the ground. He looked up, and his breath caught in his throat.
Valois was huddled back on the couch, staring at the decoration in abject horror. His whole body was trembling and Gunther could hear him panting.
"Get rid of it!" he whispered, sheer panic in his voice.
"What? What the—? Valois, what on earth?"
Valois struggled to his feet, trying to back away, almost falling over the couch in his desperation, still transfixed by the glittering Eye. His skin—already deathly pale—drained to a frightening translucence.
"Pleasepleaseplease!" he begged, his voice little more than a hoarse whimper. "Get rid of it!"
"I—" Gunther began, reaching out to pick it up, but at that moment Valois's eyes rolled back in his head and he crumpled to the ground.
The decoration hit the sand, rolling away a little as Gunther fell to his knees. "Oh Christ," he gasped, reaching to cradle Valois's face, his fingertips checking at Valois's throat for a pulse. It was there, but very faint. Slowly, as if it took a supreme effort, Valois opened his eyes.
"Please!" The word came out in a terrifying breathless wheeze, as if Valois couldn't get enough air and was choking to death. "Get rid of it!"
"I... I'll be right back," Gunther muttered, scrambling to his feet and grabbing the decoration as he rose. He looked around frantically, spotting the top deck of the cruise ship in the distance. The water, then.
He ran until he reached a sandy bank above the Nile, behind the shop, then he hurled the ornament as hard as he could toward the water, all thoughts of how much money he was consigning to its depths forgotten. He waited until it splashed down, then he turned and ran back to where Valois lay, now motionless.
"Oh god," he whimpered, as he bent over Valois's supine form. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I didn't know!"