“Are you a gambling man?” She pointed at the object taking up most of the table beside him. “Do I see a senet board?”
He rubbed his hand across the game board inlaid atop the gleaming container. “Indeed it is. You play?”
As if she had all the time in the world, Nima walked to the game box, deliberately making her stride slow and sensuous, like the opening steps of a dance. Bending to give him a good view of her shapely bottom outlined by the dress pulled tight as she leaned over, Nima opened the bottom drawer of the case and plucked a shiny black pawn at random from inside. With an elegant gesture, she turned and extended her hand to the caravan master, the pawn sitting on her flat palm. “I challenge you to a game.”
He stroked his bearded chin, leaned back as he braced one foot on a trunk and made a show of considering. “For what stakes?”
“If I win, you give us shelter for the night, and we go our separate ways in the morning.” She set the pawn on the board in the starting square. “If you win, we’re yours to do with as you please.”
“Nima—” Kamin’s protest was instant and angry. In two steps he was at her side, yanking her to face him. “What are you—”
Wrenching herself loose, she ignored him, facing Ptahnetamun again. “I’ve lived in border towns all my life, so I’ve heard of the honor code governing caravan masters. I want your word you’ll abide by the outcome of the game.” She held up one hand before he could speak. “No, I want your blood oath on it.”
Jaw dropping, Ptahnetamun stared at her while his men muttered and even the serving girl looked impressed by Nima’s boldness.
“Well? Do you agree to my terms or don’t you?” Nima drew herself to her full height and tried to feel impressive, despite her dusty clothes and tired body. He can’t back down from this challenge in front of his crew. I hope. Since he hesitated, she taunted him, paraphrasing a saying she’d often heard in the taverns where she danced. “Be aware I’ll pass you by as one who sails with the breeze, blessed by the Sun. I’ll be entering the House of Repeating Life while you, my opponent, will be stopped.”
Next minute, Ptahnetamun threw back his head, roaring with laughter. “Spoken like a true gambler. I like your spirit, woman.” He pointed at Kamin. “Does your warrior agree to what you propose? The deal must include you both.”
“Will you give us a moment?” Pulling Kamin aside, Nima turned so the gawking caravan crew couldn’t see their faces. Kamin’s cheeks were red, and his frown was truly impressive.
Putting both hands on her shoulders, he gave her a little shake. “What in the seven hells are you doing? “
She laid her hand gently over his mouth, leaning close as she whispered, “Trust me, please, Kamin? If he swears me a blood oath—”
Shoving her hand away, he rolled his eyes. “And if you win,” he said furiously. “The throwing sticks are bound to be false-weighted somehow. It won’t be a fair game, not some friendly match in the tavern for mugs of beer.”
“I’m hoping the sticks are false.” She smiled mischievously, letting her smile fade as he continued to glare at her. “Please? I know the stakes are high, but we’re not getting out of here otherwise. You’re one man surrounded by dozens, and he sees profit in selling us. This is the only way we stand a chance of escaping.”
“You’re asking me to risk the success of my mission for Pharaoh, for Egypt, on how well you can cheat a cheater?” He closed his eyes for a moment, rubbing his brow.
“Blood oath?” Ptahnetamun asked from his position next to the game board.
Going on tiptoe to look over Kamin’s shoulder, Nima said magnanimously, “Nothing less. I’ll swear as well,” drawing a quickly smothered laugh from the ever-increasing crowd at her back.
“She’s set the stakes.” The man who’d taken Nima on his horse came forward to offer the caravan master his dagger. “Challenge has been made.”
“And accepted!” Ptahnetamun slammed his cup on the table so forcefully the base cracked. Rolling back his sleeve, he extended his thick wrist. “I swear by the twin gods of the caravan road to abide by the outcome of this senet game. She and her man go free in the morning if she wins.” He leered at Nima. “But she’ll be on her back in my bed by dawn if I win.” The crowd roared with amusement at this sally. Gesturing at Kamin, he finished his boasting. “Be sure I’ll sell his carcass for a tidy profit.”