The Last Empress

Remick dropped his “surprise” on the table. It was a dead bird, wrapped in cloth.

Curtis did not give him the satisfaction of retching or pulling away,  two months spent as the youngest member of this expedition had hardened him to the archeologists’ unique sense of humor. Even now, Remick chuckled as if he’d jumped on a chair like a cartoon housewife, stroking his forelock out of place.

The bird was so stiff it rocked with the slam of the yurt door.

Around noon, the call came.  Weeks waiting under the blank sun, constant uphill work. Twelve solid feet of frozen dirt. Water that refroze as soon as you turned the torch off. They’d exhausted their butane four feet in and had to make do with the old pile-of-embers method like they were making a dugout canoe. All for one grave.

True to their steppe surroundings, the Qtak empire had been nomads. Well, perhaps empire was a strong word for a people who had never numbered in the thousands. They had been around though. Tussled with the Tatars, scrapped with with the Scythians, hunted a Hun or two. If half the things said by their enemies were correct(and they probably weren’t) the Qtaki had eaten their common dead, meaning a tomb was a very special find indeed.

Curtis rocked back and forth in his Keds as team members were outfitted with what little gear they needed. The stone cairn, a circular well-cap about twelve feet in diameter, didn’t go down very far. But it was cold. And treacherous. Ramirez now limped, still radiating enthusiasm after a near-miss with a real Indiana Jones-style deathtrap. The mood had sobered up considerably when Brecht informed them that the Qtak favored poison on their flint knife-edges, a nasty concoction that involved rotting several species of venomous fish.

The Qtak had a peculiar attitude towards death. The birds Curtis had been finding for days were a good luck charm, killed with a sling and buried in red cloth. Construction of the outhouse had turned up enough to bless an army. Whoever was buried here was a person of interest indeed. And yet Curtis felt no excitement as he was ushered in to the main burial chamber. The dig had been even more unglamorous than advertised, and he suspected that at least part of this was intentional. He had not taken part in the joy of discovery, or even the excavation of all the finery that nomads could offer. He was, instead, tasked with what fragments they could trust him not to drop with mittened hands. Brecht and Goldman petted the opening with bluing fingers. Ramirez nudged him.

“You first, Lord Carnarvon.”

The Qtak, Curtis found, had been big on horses. Or hated them. He had yet to decide as he bagged the umpteenth hoof-ornament. Before him, Goldman elucidated the smeary scrawl that covered the hide scrolls in the burial chamber. It promised the contractual swift and sudden death to all who broke the grave’s peace, urging the canny tomb raider to seek out somewhere less protected.

“–and you can see by the livering of the hide, the chief pigment was probably a manganese derivative,” Goldman explicated, “as seen on the storage jars of the Erener-Seers expedition of 1812…”

Goldman had nice, crisp diction and an infectious Birmingham drawl, which was probably why Brecht left the speeches to him. The shorter man braced his forearms over his chest, legs apart, scowling with authority.

The nomads had left horn drinking cups and hide utensils. The nomads had eaten with a crude spoon/knife hybrid and their chief diet had been meat and a kind of millet. There was no metal, not even ornaments.

Curtis tagged the tableware and tried not to look at the dais.

Ice had kept time from touching everything, even the bacteria that would rot a body found no footholds in here. A slender wrist, white and smooth as bone, protruded between robe and silk warming pouch. It was swirled with blue spirals that suggested labyrinths. Curtis caught Brecht’s scowl and lowered his head. The tomb had many treasures, the most mundane packed loosely to bribe customs officials, the most precious secreted in equipment boxes. Only when this was done would they consider the body.

That night Curtis had a primitive stew made with caribou fat and blood and vinegar to keep it from congealing. In their tent, Brecht and Goldman and six senior members had Kraft mac ‘n cheese with Miller Lite. After he feigned fullness to leave the table, Curtis shrugged on his gloves and went for a walk.

There was a special kind of emptiness to the plains. It was something they didn’t tell you about, and he didn’t think anyone could put it into words. He wondered what could possibly frighten a people after living in such a place.

His wandering carried him past the tomb. Hermann was watching the entrance with one of their precious beers. He had been least antagonistic towards Curtis, probably out of regret for the snake-in-the-boot incident early on in the expedition that had nearly killed him. Oh well, Curtis would take goodwill where he could.

The pudgy Viennese smiled as he approached and waved him closer.

“Here,” he called, “something to show you.”

The possibility that Hermann’s contrition had run out did grace Curtis’s thoughts, but he scrambled through the low stone arch anyway.

Curtis clenched to himself. It was against all physical logic that a place sheltered from the incessant windchill would be colder. Hermann, made merry against the cold by alcohol, beckoned him further.

“Look surprised when they reveal this tomorrow,” he rasped in Curtis’s ear, “otherwise we’ll both be in deep shit.”

He lit the dais with a small camping lantern, throwing the diaphanous veil into mist. Curtis wondered how a people who lived by blood and dirt could make anything so fine and–

“It’s a girl,” he breathed. Hermann gave him an odd look.

“How’d you guess?” he said, “never mind. This is queen Rangana XXXVIII, last and most horrible ruler of the Qtak people. Even to a bunch of murdering bastards, she was a little too much. All this writing? They wanted to make sure she stayed put. Nasty little bitch she must’ve been.” He pointed with his chin. “See her gown? Bridal garb. They dressed her this way because she was marrying god.” He caught Curtis’s puzzled stare. “They walled her in here.”

Curtis stared at that fine little wrist, which had been jarred or moved intentionally to display more of the tattoo that wound like a stylistic bruise up her arm. Hermann snorted like a water buffalo and scratched his ass.

“They buried beer with her, too,” he said, grinning crookedly, “I’d invite you to partake, but who knows what they put in it?”

Curtis didn’t want anything to drink, even when a remorseful Hermann offered a sip of his longneck. He wasn’t sure he could keep the stew down anyway.

Through the soothing buzz of his yurtmate’s snoring, even with the reassuring rasp of Remick’s foot against his left calf, Curtis dreamed he was alone on the plain. Stranded from all directions, he had no cover against the endless procession of day and night. There was a stone on his chest, and when he tried to move he found his body brittle.

Ramirez slapped him none-too-gently awake for briefing. He was still ten minutes late and arrived tucking his pullover into the waist of his pants. Brecht stared a silent reprove. Goldman took point, speaking with sonorous goodwill.

“My and my colleague’s suspicions have proved to be correct, this is indeed the tomb of Rangana XXXVIII.” He paused for polite oohs and ahhs and a few good-natured fucks. Brecht dissected Curtis with his gaze, so he pantomimed exaggerated shock.

“The last, and most despised, ruler of the Qtak,” Goldman continued, warming to his subject, “when she died, they scratched her name from every official record… those that were left, anyway. The product of a Dynasty’s treachery and inbreeding, the lady was called a sorceress and a demon and a few other terms that don’t translate. Her chief surviving title is “woe to the people.’”

Curtis gazed over her majesty. She had been buried with all finery, a dainty set of horsehide slippers and an antler comb for the hair that still shone lustrous and deep red beneath her veil. She was small. So small.

“When her reign ended prematurely, it was thought that one of her male relatives would ascend to the throne, but the people could no longer take a chance of another tyrant of her stature—”

Curtis’s hand cut through the air. Goldman, piqued at the interruption, nodded his head.

“Mister Fullman seems to be under the impression we are in class. Yes?”

“Fullham,” he corrected automatically, “and how can that possible, sir? She’s just a girl.”

The silence cracked like glacial ice between the party. Curtis knew he had just trashed his chances at ever recovering popularity, but it was important.

It was Brecht who answered him, though. “And I suppose you doubt all the empirical evidence we’ve amassed since the beginning of the dig?” he inquired in clipped Braunschweig tones.

“Couldn’t they have switched her out for a nobody? Surely anyone could see that this is the body of someone who has yet to hit puberty—”

But Goldman was already clucking, Brecht shaking his head slowly with a condescending smile on his face.

“I would like,” he said, “to get the corpse appraised by a proper scientist before we take the word of a grad student.” Low chuckles.

Curtis knew he should stop, here and now, but the tiny form squeezed into his chest like a fist.

“With all due respect, sir,” he said, giving each word a knife-edge, “this has all the hallmarks of a sacrifice, perpetuated by the same small minds who would condemn someone incapable of defending themselves.”

Crimson bloomed across Brecht’s cheeks.

“Fullham, you’re suspended until further notice,” Goldman said softly.

Curtis rested his head against the yurt wall and listened to Hermann listen to a Turkish game show. The others were busy packing and labeling the empress’ last effects, then they would return with their scalpels and—

Curtis squeezed his eyes shut. no.

He wondered what it was like, being betrayed by your own people, used as an expendable asset. Had she been lonely? It was lonely out here.

Curtis tugged on his gloves. He only had so long. So long, so long she’d been out here. Betrayed.

Herman’s skull gave neatly to his flashlight.

The tomb was cold as he wriggled his way through the small(child)-sized door.

Whoever had put her on her dais had arranged her with decorum in a sitting position. She had one hand out as if offering(beckoning) and one hand to her stomach(clutching a wound?) inviting. Her shawl was the deep red of celebrations, of joy, of blood.

The body he carried was as light as death.

He couldn’t imagine the kind of people who would bury a small girl like this, who would take advantage of someone so much weaker and smaller than they were. To shut them up in the dark, declaring that they would never rise. It was all slander, like Tacitus against Messalina, like Daniel against Nebuchadnezzar II. She must have been a convenient scapegoat, a girl of royal blood, or just a girl at the wrong place at the wrong time. No one so young was capable of anything of such a massive and evil scope. Beneath his hand, her illia had not even flared. And this was a despot?

Goldman met him coming back from the outhouse, smile dying on his lips. Curtis hit him twice to make sure he stayed down. So small, so light in his arms. Had she caught the eye of some fat warlord and paid the price for it? Had she no one in the world to speak up for her, defend her against sacrifice? Or(he feared this was the case) had they held the priest’s sleeves as they ritualistically bound her ankles together?

The first of the jeeps caught aflame easily. Ramirez went after him with the jerrycan, so he had to put her down somewhere safe before he could grapple. Ramirez had eighty pounds on him, but made the mistake of showing him an old football injury on the trip up. He fell, hand clapped to his spurting ear. Curtis spit out cartilage and blood and felt warm for the first time since arriving here.

Brecht fell quickly, ice blue eyes widening at the tent stake. Some joker had smuggled a gun in his sock, but Curtis divested him of that smart quick. The yurts burned like torches as he hunted down the survivors.

He found her still curled up in the knoll he’d left her in.  Gathering her tenderly to himself, he murmured reassurances he knew were ineffective. They’d called her a sorrow, a plague, a woe on the people. They had called a child a tyrant. Let them see what true tyranny was.

Beneath empty skies, he rocked the bride of god.

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