In the shelter of a colossal oak dresser, Draco Malfoy took the opportunity to perform one of his regular surreptitious Cooling Charms. He pointed the tip of his wand to the muggy cloth sticking to his armpit with a practised gesture, and nearly drove it through his shoulder at the sound of a voice.
“How much for this bowl?”
“Fifty pounds,” called Draco. He stowed his wand in the special pocket sewn into his sleeve and smoothed down the bump.
“I’ll give you thirty.”
“Fifty,” insisted Draco. He wafted air around his perspiring face, then thought to blot the sweat with his cuff.
“Thirty-five, and that’s my last offer.”
“It’s fifty or nothing,” said Draco, emerging from behind the dresser and leaning sideways against it.
The man who was fingering an ornate pewter bowl didn’t look around. His numerous jewelled rings caught the fire of the setting sun, which blazed in through the dusty front windows. The points of light created tiny coronas of blindness and left Draco blinking back white spots.
“How about if I offered you dinner for two at Kali’s?”
“Then it’d definitely be fifty, plus a ten pound surcharge for unwarranted presumption.” Draco tried not to let the laughter brimming on lips betray his customary expression of the ferocious, cut-throat bargainer.
“Ah, you slay me,” sighed the man. He set down the bowl with exaggerated care. “Tell me what this piece of crap does to deserve such an inflated price, and maybe I’ll take it off your delicate hands.”
“That was found in the temple of a king, I’ll have you know,” protested Draco. He moved to stand at the shoulder of the man, relishing the fact that he started at Draco’s nearness. “Just look at that wonderful workmanship, the intricacy of the detail on the rim designs. Even the slight wave of the cupola shows its uniqueness -- and there’s a rare seal of the craftsman on the base.”
The man turned the bowl over. “Ah! I see it.”
“You do?” Draco was flummoxed. “I mean, of course you do. I am still studying it to see if it is an eagle or a sphinx, for the latter will greatly increase its value. I tell you, it will be a wrench to let you have it. I am not sure that I could let it go.”
“I think you’re mistaken about the sphinx,” said the man. “I think what it says is ‘made in China.’”
“Bastard!” Draco slapped him on the shoulder.
“Tell you what.” The man withdrew a purse from his pocket with a rasp of silk. “I’ll buy if from you anyway. My wife needs a new fruit bowl. I’ll give you twenty-five pounds.”
“Thirty and it’s yours.”
“Done.” The man slid two fingers into the neck of his purse and, with exaggerated care, counted out the money into Draco’s damp palm.
Usually Draco would perform a Drying Charm to ensure that his handshake was both firm and dry, for it was a rare quality in this climate. However, Achilles was not a usual customer, in any sense of the words.
“Shall I wrap it for you?” asked Draco. He ran one finger along the rim of the bowl and pretended not to feel the decades’-worth of imbedded dirt that he picked up along the way.
“No, no, don’t bother. I’ll collect it later in the week.” Achilles stroked his short, pointed beard. One of the amethysts on his middle ring reached to his knuckle; he was in grave danger of taking out his own eye with it. Although he was French, Achilles was often mistaken for someone of Egyptian blood, for his grandparents had been refugees from Algeria. Such assimilation with the natives was both a boon and a curse: Draco was given some leeway for being a stupid European. Achilles received none.
As Draco rang up the sale on his rusty cash register, Achilles hoisted himself on to one of the numerous antique chairs. His ample bulk raised a cloud of dust, which glittered in the fading sunshine like a grimy halo. He exclaimed in disgust. Draco smirked at him.
“I’ve warned you plenty of times that the furniture is in mint condition,” he said. “Which means ‘in exactly the same condition as I found it.’”
“And where do you find it? No, don’t tell me -- car boot sales in the middle of the desert?” Achilles winced, inspecting his trousers.
“No, that’s where you find it, remember?” Draco set about writing him a receipt. Most of his competitors had receipt machines, except for Al Jareem, who was senile and thought he was a parrot. However, the Muggle technology of automated tills was too much for Draco. Mastering the art of giving correct change -- or any change at all -- was quite enough for him.
He didn’t notice that Achilles had stood up, although it was to be expected. The man was fastidious to the point of obsession and the chair hadn’t been cleaned since its previous owner had died in it. But Draco did pay attention when Achilles’ rejoinder came in a warm tickle on the skin beneath his ear.
“Ha, ha, ha,” whispered Achilles. “So, does that receipt include a discount for trying to fob me off?”
“You’re a far better dealer than I am,” objected Draco. He squirmed away to the filing cabinet where he stored receipt copies. “You know that bowl is barely worth the tin it’s beaten out of.”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it.” Achilles leaned back in a casual pose that completely blocked Draco’s way past the cash desk. “You play these games. You like to pretend that every time is the last time, and then that it never happened at all.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” declared Draco, his fingers curling around the edge of the desk as Achilles advanced.
“Insufferable,” Achilles ground out, inches from Draco’s nose.
Under his mouth, Draco smiled.
For a second, he opened his lips and Achilles pounced, but Draco twisted away. “I have customers,” he reminded Achilles, who looked red and wounded, “and you have a wife.”
“It’s not as if I wanted her.” Achilles’ voice was plaintive as he trailed after Draco. “I’d trade her in for some African mahogany quick as look at you, I swear it.”
Draco snorted. “I’m sure she’d appreciate that. After all, I have some African mahogany in stock.”
Achilles’ hand slid around his waist. “I know you do,” he murmured.
Draco stepped smoothly away. “So, dinner for two at Kali’s, wasn’t it? How lovely. You’re paying?”
“I always do. You always ask. You’re a little odd, Felix, you know that?”
“I’m insulted. Only a little?”
“I’ll wait for you.” Achilles' fingers inched along the top of a cabinet, the drawers of which Draco was rifling through in search of small, hidden treasures.
“No, you won’t,” said Draco. “You’ll go home now and have a drink with your lovely wife. You’ll tell her about the beautiful antique bowl you bought her as a surprise present. You’ll be vague about where you bought it from, because you don’t want her to realise how much time you spend hanging about here. Then, when she’s softened up, you’ll kiss her tenderly on the cheek -- shoving your tongue down her mouth would be far too crude, so you save that for your mistresses -- and tell her that, regretfully, you have a dinner arranged with an old man who’s sitting on a fortune in old bronzes but doesn’t want to sell. A very difficult old gentleman, who’ll prove to be a useful alibi in weeks to come.”
“God, but you’re a cold bastard.” Admiration dripped from Achilles’ voice like warm treacle. Draco had never liked treacle.
“So I’ve been told,” replied Draco, his voice curt.
“You’re better at adultery than the adulterer,” murmured Achilles. His lips pressed a farewell to the nape of Draco’s neck before Draco had a chance to prevent him. “You should give lessons.”
Draco put his palm in the centre of Achilles’ chest and pushed him back, none too gently. “I am.”
“You’re wrong about one thing, though,” said Achilles, his hand on the brass doorknob.
“Oh, yes? Your wife’s a teetotaller?”
“No. I don’t have mistresses. Only you.” He was gone in a jingle of bells. They hung over the door and were older than most of the antiques that Draco palmed off on gullible tourists.
“Foolish man,” muttered Draco, and opened his ledgers to tot up the day’s takings.
The white fez with the ruby was a shameless extravagance, given that Draco was supposed to be a Westerner. However, he found the traditional dress of Cairo a reassurance in its resemblance to wizarding attire. His fellow antique dealers, neighbours and customers had grown used to seeing Draco walking the streets in robes, white from head to toe, as his hand-tooled shoes were cream leather and his hair was bleached to the colour of bone from the sun.
On the other hand, he could only get away with wearing the fez on special occasions. Dinner with Achilles du Toit was one such occasion. His wife had produced yet another child, and this had occupied much of Achilles’ time during the past few months. Draco was looking forward to his company -- his informed conversation on the better parts of the Muggle world and his impeccable taste in wine -- as much as he was anticipating what came after.
Draco inspected his face in the mirror. Magic mirrors were a vanity that could not make the transition to pseudo-Muggle living. They tended to give themselves away to visitors and the last thing Draco wanted was the Egyptian equivalent of the Magical Reversal Squad outing him at last. It would have been nice, though, for someone to check if he had a spot in a place he couldn’t see, or to bolster him up about his appearance before a nerve-wracking night on the tiles.
He poured some pungent oil into his palms and worked them together. He’d had to adapt to doing things the 'long' way whenever he had overnight guests. Clothes and toiletries flying from the cupboards of their own accord tended to have strong effects upon said guests -- such as running out of the house screaming and stark naked.
Oiling his hair, however, was one of the few primping tasks that Draco actually enjoyed. He slid his hands over his scalp and teased the ends of his hair flat, before settling the fez at a jaunty angle. He smiled and winked to himself in the mirror much as it would have done for him years before, in Hogwarts or Malfoy Manor.
Satisfied, he picked up his wallet and stowed it away. Anti-Detection Charms were proof against pickpockets, although Achilles had often had cause to remark that Draco seemed to ward off thieves by magic. Draco doubted that Achilles meant real magic, but he was considering having his wallet stolen once just to dispel any lingering suspicion. Better that than leaving even the smallest chance that Achilles might discover the truth and with it, the life that Draco had once led.
He didn’t notice the owl tapping at his window, for the simple reason that he had not expected to see another one for the rest of his life.
“I am?” Draco raised his eyebrows. He tended towards poor timekeeping, so he’d made a special effort to be on time for this. Clearly it had not paid off.
“Yes. Two minutes and twenty-three -- four -- seconds late,” said Achilles, tapping his wrist-watch. It was a heavy gold affair with far more hands and faces than could possibly be necessary. Draco was impressed that Achilles had managed to read any time from it at all.
“How ridiculous.” Draco tilted his head at the waiter who’d pulled out a chair for him. “I thought I’d actually kept you waiting.”
“You have,” said Achilles. He reached forward to cover Draco’s hand with his own. Draco snatched his away and held it safe in his lap. He waited until the waiter was well out of earshot before he spoke.
Smiling, Draco said through clenched teeth, “Have you lost your mind? We’re in a public place, remember? For all you know, some of your associates could be dining here tonight.”
Achilles looked panicked for a moment and stared around the room. In trying to do it discreetly, he attracted the attention of three other tables who caught his eye and, most likely, wondered who he was looking for.
Draco swore under his breath. He’d taken a swoop of the room as he walked in and made sure that no one he or Achilles knew was there, but he had been counting on a complete lack of interest from other diners to put the seal on their discretion. Achilles had just blown that wide open. Draco was starting to wonder if he somehow wanted them to be caught. It served Draco right for taking up with bored husbands. Few suited the cloak and dagger lifestyle. If they had, they never would have married in the first place.
“There’s no one here, but that’s no reason to let down your guard.” Draco’s hiss felt cold against the back of his teeth. “And keep your feet away from mine -- the tablecloths only reach halfway down.”
“All right, mother,” said Achilles, beginning to look irritated.
“You’d think this was my marriage on the line,” muttered Draco. He disguised his comment against the rim of his wineglass.
“This is an excellent vintage,” he remarked, hoping to cool Achilles down. In reckless moods he was prone to extravagant gestures. It would be a long time before Draco forgot the trip to the Pyramids. The hidden alcoves and stairways probably hadn’t seen so much action since they were built. Draco, on the other hand, was not quite so keen to share his sexuality with the rest of the world -- dead or otherwise.
Achilles proceeded to declaim the merits of the wine until Draco had drained the glass. By then he had forgotten his annoyance with Draco, for which Draco was duly grateful.
“Are we ready to order?” asked the waiter, who had sidled up beside them like a bashful crab. Draco almost yelped in surprise. The waiters at Kali’s had to be getting special training in stealth, he decided. From international spies.
“Yes, thank you,” said Achilles. Draco grabbed up his menu and discarded it a second later. It was easier to order what Achilles ordered. That way, at least, Achilles couldn’t steal half his meal under the pretence of 'tasting' it and then subject it to a detailed critique.
“And you, sir?” said the waiter, with a voice as slick as an oil spill.
“Oh, the same.” Draco lounged back in his chair and bestowed on Achilles his first smile of the evening.
“Excuse me, sir.” The waiter was still hovering. Draco frowned at him. What did he want? A signed declaration that Draco had made up his mind what to order?
The waiter extracted a silver platter from somewhere hidden deep within his penguin suit and brandished it level with Draco’s nose. A single envelope lay on the platter, the thick paper a dull gleam against the mirror-like sheen of the silver. Draco felt a sudden, sick twist in his gut.
It would have been most odd not to, so Draco plucked up the envelope and flipped it on to the tablecloth. He tried to vanquish the feeling that it was an apple and that there was a serpent hidden somewhere underneath the exquisite damask.
“Thank you,” snapped Achilles, all but waving the man away.
Draco stared after the waiter and he turned back. He raised his hand and mouthed something, but Achilles was muttering and Draco couldn’t make out what the waiter had said. Draco turned away to send Achilles a placating smile and when he looked back, the waiter had disappeared.
“Are you going to open that?” Achilles nodded at the envelope, face down on the cloth. Draco followed his gaze, noting with a leap of apprehension that it was merely paper folded over and sealed with wax.
“Damn odd way of delivering post,” said Achilles, and Draco agreed.
His hands were not trembling as he slid his fingers beneath the envelope and levered it up. That’s what he told himself, anyway; that was the refrain that reverberated in his head. As long as he concentrated on the fact that his hands were not trembling -- that he was, in fact, cool, calm and collected -- then he could ignore how loud his own breathing sounded to his ears.
On the front was a direction that made Draco’s heart foster ambitions to stop entirely. It read: 'D. Malfoy.'
“Come along, Felix, open the bloody thing and we can get back to us,” complained Achilles. His voice sounded as far away as if he were standing on the beaches of Troy.
Ignoring him, Draco snatched at his knife. He missed it, slamming the handle with his wrist and sending it spinning away under the legs of a matron in vermilion two tables over. Achilles exclaimed, but Draco just tore the envelope open. He realised, as in his horror he had suspected, that it was not paper at all but fine, expensive parchment.
A newspaper clipping floated out of the wreckage, drifting indolently on the air currents of the balmy night. Draco let it fall into his lap, reading as he went and quite unable to do anything so co-ordinated as reach out a hand and pick it up.
“Felix, what is it? Bad news? Would you please say something, Felix?”
Draco looked up and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror above the bar. It was a gilt-trip in brass grapes and brazen nymphs. It did not look like the sort of glass that should be reflecting a face like Draco’s at that moment.
“Felix? Say something!”
“I have to go,” croaked Draco, shoving back his chair. The legs protested, so he pushed harder and it overturned. The crash sent waiters scurrying over like rats from a sinking ship, but Draco paid them no mind. He closed his fist around the crumple of newsprint and turned on his heel, leaving behind a broken chair, a snapped knife, parchment confetti, a stunned lover and three hundred pounds’ worth of damages.
The moon rose. Its cold light glinted off the crescent of Draco’s thumbnail and the valleys of his thumb, clenched as it was and had been for hours. He was sitting in a deliberate posture of relaxation: one foot hooked over the arm of his chair, one arm slung over the back, spare hand resting paler than white on his lap.
In the morning, Achilles would come looking for him. He wouldn’t come tonight; he had his wife, his children to get back to, and besides he’d want to punish Draco for his irrational behaviour. Achilles being the sort of man he was, he assumed that being deprived of his company was the worst thing that could happen to someone who loved him. He sometimes forgot that Draco was his lover, not his son.
By morning, he’d want to know what had provoked Draco into denying himself a night of fine dining, of seduction and pleasure. By morning, Draco had to be gone.
The moon woke him out of his deep thought. Without haste, he unhooked himself from the chair and stretched. The folds of his white robe fell about him, crinkling with the movement. Draco thought for a moment, then pulled it over his head and dropped it on the floor. That disguise had been penetrated. Wand summoned, he walked nude to the small protrusion on the wall that he told everyone who asked was a bricked-in window. Several words and a flash of purple light later, a door stretched itself into the space.
Magical books were available in Cairo just as easily as they were in Diagon Alley, and in some places easier. Magic had been wrought upon the tombs of the Pharaohs long before the first hedge witch in England had cut himself a wand. These books were older and perhaps darker, but they were from a time when the light was just as dangerous and fathomless as the dark. The building blocks of everyday magic had been fashioned from them.
Draco selected two or three and, sinking to the grimy floor, began to read.
When he left in the morning, nothing was left of his shop but a derelict shack, with a torn white rag on the sagging floor of the single room. Just as Draco had found it.