The Tomb: New Excerpt
By S. A. Bodeen
S. A. Bodeen delivers yet another heart-pounding YA thriller in The Tomb, where Kiva and Seth must fight to save what remains of human civilization even as they fight their feelings for each other.
Nothing is as it seems.
These are the first words Kiva’s best friend Seth says, after three years of silence.
Kiva thought she was growing up in ancient Alexandria. That’s what she and all her classmates had been led to believe by their parents. It turns out she was living in virtual reality, in a sleep chamber in deep space, and three years ago, Seth woke up. Now it’s her turn to join him.
Together, Kiva and Seth must take an escape shuttle to search for the engine part their home ship needs to keep running. But it’s been a long time since the Krakatoa has communicated with any of the other three ships harboring human civilization. Kiva and Seth are not sure what they’ll find if and when they finally make contact.
Kiva sensed Seth before she saw him.
Uncomfortable on the rough sycamore bench, she bent low over a lengthy scroll. The fingers of her left hand gripped the stylus and she bit her lower lip, concentrating so hard, as usual, that she didn’t even notice one strap of her pale yellow kalasiri slip off her shoulder.
Suddenly, the equation in her head vanished.
The air flowing in the room seemed to cease.
Startled, she swept her gaze down the long table.
The others in her class were still absorbed in their own studies. Ada’s nose nearly touched the table as she pressed figures onto the papyrus, her eyes hidden behind a curtain of dark, glossy hair. The twins Rom and Rem murmured over the work in front of them, heads so close together that it was hard to tell where one’s curly black hair ended and the other’s began.
There was no reason for Kiva to be aware of the prince of Alexandria.
Her eyes confirmed what her gut already knew.
Seth was a bit taller than when she last caught a glimpse of him, six months ago at the festival of the moon. His chest, bare beneath the gold ram’s head amulet strung on a chunky strand of lapis, was more filled out; his arms, the right bicep wrapped several times by a silver, red-jewel-eyed viper, more muscular. A strip of leopard fur lined the waist of his blue knee-length shendyt, and his dark head was completely shaved in the style of his father, the Pharaoh, which made him seem older than fifteen.
But those brown eyes, their size accented by the thick rim of jet-black kohl, had not changed from when he was a child, playing hide-and-seek with her in clumps of bulrushes at the river’s edge. His chin dipped ever so slightly. “Kiva.”
Out of habit, Kiva’s fingers drifted to the red woven bracelet on her arm, tracing the soft, worn ridges she knew so well. “Seth.” After so long, his name sounded strange when she said it aloud.
The stylus fell out of Ada’s hand and her eyes widened. The twins straightened up when they noticed the prince, then turned their attention to Kiva.
Annoyed at Seth for catching her off guard, especially in front of the others, part of her wanted to turn back around, start writing again, pretend she hadn’t seen him.
Or, perhaps, pretend that she didn’t care.
Neither seemed like an option at the moment, particularly since her peers seemed to be breathlessly awaiting her reaction to his presence.
Gods. She stood, smoothed the sheath that fell to her ankles, and held her head high. A few quick strides erased the space between them.
He stepped back a foot, as if not wanting to stand too close.
Kiva was near enough to tell she’d been off; the prince had grown more than an inch or two. Her voice projected far greater confidence than she felt. “This is a surprise.”
Seth didn’t answer. His gaze drifted slowly around the room, paused on the others.
Ada blushed and buried her head in her scroll.
Rom raised a hand halfway in a wave, stopped short by Rem’s elbow to his ribs.
A corner of Seth’s mouth turned up, as if amused.
“What?” Kiva asked. “Is something funny?”
He gazed down and bent forward, as if to share a secret.
She held her breath.
Every part of her tried hard not to care, but failed. She still held out hope that he would offer words, a medicine to heal the hurt, answers to her questions of the past three years.
She longed for him to call her by the nickname only he used. That would be all it took for her to know he still cared.
Please say it, please please …
His voice was deeper than she remembered, but quiet. “Your world—”
Two giggling girls from the class below them entered the room, interrupting. They stopped when they saw the prince and stood there openmouthed.
Kiva grabbed Seth’s arm and pulled him out to the courtyard bathed bright by the midday Egyptian sun.
The prince stared at her hand with disdain.
“Sorry.” She let go. “Please. Finish.”
“Prince! There you are.” A woman rushed across the manicured plaza, her ebony, chin-length hair bouncing, a red cape draped over her white kalasiri—official uniform of the palace’s royal vizier—that flowed out behind her.
Kiva frowned. “What is my mother doing here?”
“Sabra’s here for me. Thought I lost her, but she’s faster than I expected.” He winked. Then, he casually slid her strap back up on her shoulder.
In that moment he became the prince Kiva used to know, her best friend from the time she was four.
Her heartbeat sped up.
Had he slipped away from the palace to give her a message? Why seek her out after avoiding her for so long? Her long-slumbering hopes roused, dampening the slightest bit as her mother continued to bear down on them.
“Finish what you were saying,” Kiva spoke fast. “My world what?”
“Prince!” Her harried mother was almost upon them. “We need to return to the palace.”
“Your world”—Seth pointed at Kiva, then gestured at the door, as if to include the others—“is as you see it to be.” He bent down, his head close to hers, then whispered, “Until it isn’t.”
She wanted to ask what he meant, but her mother reached them before she had a chance.
Seth said, “I must return to the palace.”
“What?” Kiva stared up at him. That was it? He was leaving?
Kiva didn’t want him to go. She wanted more than anything to believe that he had come to see her, that he wanted to see her. “You could stay.” She pointed inside. “Our class would be happy to see you.”
Seth’s laugh was not kind. Once again, he was a stranger. “That’s not a good idea.” The prince turned his back and strolled across the courtyard.
Kiva’s stomach clenched.
Had he come only to bother her?
Hot tears threatened.
Sabra took her daughter’s hand. “What did he say to you?”
Kiva stared at Seth’s back. “Nothing.” The lump in her throat made the word hitch as it came out. “He said nothing.”
Sabra pressed her lips to Kiva’s forehead. “I’ll see you at home.” She followed the prince around the row of low sun-dried brick buildings.
Kiva stared at the green hill that bordered one edge of the school grounds. It seemed like yesterday that she and Seth rolled down the mild grade, laughing when they ended up a tangled heap at the bottom.
The lovely setting grew blurry through her tears.
No. Not yesterday.
“Another lifetime.” She wiped her face and avoided looking at the others when she went back inside and rolled up her scroll.
Ada asked, “What did he want?”
Rom said, “No one cares what the stupid prince wanted.”
“He used to be our friend,” said Rem.
Rom said, “And now he’s too good for us.”
“He didn’t ever have to be our friend,” said Ada.
Kiva felt anger swell. “He was always my friend.”
“Until he wasn’t.” But Rem’s words were not unkind, simply honest. “Better to forget that we ever knew him as anything other than the prince.”
Kiva slammed her scroll on a side table and headed out the doorway.
“It isn’t time to leave yet,” called Ada.
Kiva ignored her.
Outside, past the buildings, the river sparkled in the hot sun. She removed her sandals and let them dangle by their straps from a fingertip. Her bare feet scuffed the rough path, dust puffing up with each step.
She knelt on the grassy riverbank and leaned over, staring into the water. Inside the blunt frame of her dark hair, her face was a vague oval. She touched the surface, then brought her wet, cool hand up to her cheek.
Quiet moments gave her too much time to think.
Not a welcome thing.
How could she believe, even for a second, that Seth actually cared enough to want to see her?
It was time to stop thinking of him as her best friend.
He was nothing but a former friend.
The sooner she dealt with it, the better.
Kiva tossed a stick in the water. Her reflection broke into ripples.
If only it were as easy to break her train of thought. She desperately needed something else in her head besides the prince.
She got to her feet and leaned down to wipe a bit of dust off the bottom of her dress. An overturned beetle caught her eye. With flailing appendages, the insect struggled to right itself. “Someone else is having a bad day.” Gently, Kiva tipped the bug over and watched it skitter away before she headed toward home.
First, she stopped at a small dwelling, identical to the one next door that she shared with her mother. She wiped her sweaty face on her sleeve and stepped back into the sandals before pausing inside the doorway. “Fai?” She moved farther into the dim, cool interior. “Are you here?”
Fai, Alexandria’s physician, was also Kiva’s willing mentor. The elder woman’s voice came from another room. “You’re early.”
Kiva considered a lie, perhaps that school was let out early. But Fai had a sixth sense about such things, leaving truth as the better choice. “I had enough for the day.”
Fai appeared in a looser fitting sheath than the girl’s, silver hair nearly glowing, smile raising deep lines in her dark, weathered face. As always, she neither judged nor scolded. “Some days are like that. I’m glad you’re here.” She held out a laundered but bloodstained apron. “You’ll need this.”
Kiva followed Fai into her laboratory.
Flaming torches lit the windowless, low-ceilinged room. The walls were lined with shelves on which rows of preserved, coiled cobras floated in large glass jars full of clear liquid, a sight that always sent a shiver down Kiva’s spine. She squinted at the pink belly of a tiny dead pig on the rough wooden table in the center of the room.
“Stillborn this morning,” said Fai.
Kiva poked a finger into the pig’s stiff, cold hide.
“You need to focus,” said Fai.
“I will.” But as soon as she tried to make her mind blank, Seth’s words echoed. Your world is as you see it to be. Until it isn’t.
For nearly three years her former best friend doesn’t speak to her, and when he does lower himself enough to actually acknowledge her existence? He offers nothing but nonsense. And laughs at her when she asks him to come inside the place where they used to spend hours together.
Why wouldn’t he want to take a few moments to speak with the others?
“You need to put aside your troubles, Kiva.” Fai cleared her throat. “One day your patient will be alive. Probably human.” The wrinkles in the older woman’s forehead deepened. “And I suspect they won’t appreciate crooked stitches. Or a thick scar.”
“I know.” Kiva tied the apron at the back of her neck, then picked up the blade in her left hand and steadied it.
The Pharaoh’s son wasn’t worth another thought. Yes, it was maddening that one sentence from Seth could affect her this way, especially since she thought she’d gotten past the way he’d changed. Despite the different status of their families in the community, their class of five had been friends from the time they started school.
But Seth’s mother died of an illness when they were twelve.
Soon after, he stopped coming to school and became a recluse in the palace.
Kiva understood that Seth had been grieving. She wanted to be there for him and waited patiently for him to reach out to her. But he never did. As the years passed, her sympathy waned. She couldn’t help feeling he had abandoned them.
Kiva bit her bottom lip.
He’d abandoned her.
“Start here.” Fai set a finger along the pig’s throat and drew it straight down to the belly. “You’ll be able to practice many stitches.”
Kiva set the blade on flesh and pushed, drawing it down the corpse, opening up a neat, expert incision.
Fai clicked her tongue. “Your hands have grown so steady.”
Kiva reached the end and lifted the blade, then wiped it on her apron. She tried to focus on the task, the thing she loved most. Medicine.
Still, Seth’s face, now almost a stranger’s, lingered in her head. Three years had passed since his mother died and he no longer spoke to anyone his own age.
The others appeared not to mind as much, if at all.
Rom and Rem had each other. Ada had her younger sister.
Kiva had Seth.
Until she didn’t.
His sudden appearance at school, a reminder of what she had lost, only made things worse.
His words, his cruel laugh, his sudden exit made Kiva feel deflated. She longed for a connection with him, a sign that he was back after the last three years.
Instead, he muttered pointless, condescending words that did nothing but make her scold herself for wasting time on the absurd belief that their friendship could be salvaged.
“What?” Her gaze lifted.
“I said you can start stitching now.” Fai pointed at the open belly. “Remember, tight and even. And keep in mind your future patient may be awake for the process. Do your best not to tug.”
“I’ll go make some tea.”
Kiva threaded the needle with sinew, then poked it through one edge of the skin, pulling it tight on the other side. She did another stitch and another, methodically sealing the pig’s belly back together.
If only all things in her life were as easy to mend.
Suddenly, the floor shook.
She dropped the needle and grabbed the edge of the table to keep from falling, breaking the longish nail on one index finger in the process. “Fai!” A glass jar fell off a shelf and exploded at her feet. Slimy liquid drenched her legs as the freed cobra uncoiled and, as if still alive, slid toward her.
Kiva shrieked and jumped away.
Part of the ceiling fell and clipped her shoulder. She dove under the table, edging farther away from the expanding snake.
Fai ran into the room and crawled under to join her.
Debris continued to crash around them as they huddled together. Kiva rubbed her shoulder as her heart seemed determined to pound a path out of her chest. “What’s happening?”
Fai gripped Kiva’s trembling hand. “An earthquake. It has to be an earthquake.” But there was little conviction in her words, and her hand was as unsteady as the girl’s. “We need to get in the open.” She pulled Kiva toward the door.
Outside the ground still trembled, but there was less danger with nothing to fall on them.
Kiva stared up. The sky remained cloudless and blue, the sun still shone.
But screams seemed to come from everywhere.
Kiva touched her shoulder and winced. “I think that I hurt—”
“You’ll live,” said Fai.
Kiva didn’t have time to consider the physician’s lack of empathy, because her grip on Fai’s hand tightened. “My mother!”
“The palace is strong.” Fai smiled faintly. “No worries there.”
Kiva remembered the other member of their household. “Sasha!” Kiva turned to run to her house, but Fai held tight to her hand.
“Wait until it stops.”
Tears filled Kiva’s eyes.
“Cats can take care of themselves. You’ll see.”
As if to prove her right, a black cat streaked out of Kiva’s house.
But the cat kept going, around the corner of Fai’s house.
Kiva started to follow, but then the rumbling ceased.
“Sasha will come back,” said Fai. “I need to see if anyone is hurt. Run back and get the black bag from my laboratory.”
Kiva hurried. But inside Fai’s house, she moved slowly as she picked her way through the rubble of furniture and things that had tumbled from shelves. In the lab itself, the ceiling had fallen in, breaking the table. The pig’s legs stuck out from a slab of stone and she squatted beside it.
The ceiling could have crushed her just as easily.
A bit of red in the debris caught her eye and she plucked it out. “Oh no.” Half of her bracelet, the one she wore day in and day out. The one Seth had made for her twelfth birthday, a few weeks before his mother died.
When the chunk of ceiling had hit her, the bracelet must have been torn apart. In the chaos, she hadn’t even noticed.
She sighed and dropped the ruined bracelet onto the dead pig.
Maybe it was a sign.
And, thanks to the prince himself, she suspected it would be quite easy indeed to never cross her former best friend’s path again.
Copyright © 2018 S. A. Bodeen.