Romance Versus Relics Chapter 15

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  • 1.
    Hello and welcome to chapter fifteen! Poor Nellie was left under a lot of pressure at the end of the last chapter. Will she manage to pull herself together and continue her tasks, or is a nervous breakdown in order? Lol! There is only one way to find out . . . turn the page.

    Ho Sung groaned miserably as he sat up on the edge of the small bed in the tiny room the monks had assigned to him at the Resolute Fist Retreat. He had not slept well, if at all, despite having spent a few hours in heavy meditation and prayer after returning from The Tomb of the First Emperor. Dozing in and out of sleep, tossing and turning, his dreams troubled him.
    The worst of the visions, which flashed through his dreaming mind, had been the agonizing expression of heartbrokenness that shone in Nellie's eyes as she had spoken to him down in the tomb. It had almost killed him to see that. He would sooner die than to know he had hurt so deeply. In stark contrast, and almost as disturbing, because it was a past reality that he may never know again, were the dreams of his one visit to Nellie's home in Sunset Valley . . . .

    Nellie's eyes shone with such deep love and trust as she had gazed up at him. He had known, without her having told him, he would be her first intimate experience with a man, and he wanted it to be as pleasurable for her as it would be for him, so he took extra care to be as gentle as possible with her. Gauging from her reaction to his tender kisses and caresses, he had succeeded in doing just that. Afterward, she had been anxious to go for round two. While he was holding her, Ho Sung's heart had never felt so light, so happy. That was the moment he was certain he had fallen deeply, and irrevocably, in love with Nellie Blye.
    Later, once she had fallen asleep in his arms, the reality of his situation struck him in the heart like a sharp dagger. Along with it came a harsh, suffocating guilt that made it impossible for him to breathe. That is when he had quietly left her bed, scribbled a note for her, and slipped soundlessly outside into the night.

    The pain still lay deep inside his heart as if it were a festering, open wound. Ho Sung could see her base camp from the window of his tiny room, even though it was several miles away. The knowledge that Nellie was so close, and yet so far away, made him as if salt was being added to that open wound. He now regretted his actions after leaving her bed, but his feelings of guilt and immorality had overwhelmed him, sending him into a blind panic that caused him to lose control of all rational thought. Therefore, to his utter horror, he found himself fleeing back to China, as quickly as possible, on the next flight heading in that direction.
    " I am so sorry, Nellie" he whispered to himself. " Now, I fear I have lost you forever." Ho Sung lowered his head into his hands and softly wept.

    If Ho Sung's night's sleep had been poor, Nellie's had been nearly non-existent. She sighed heavily as she sat on the edge of her bed, trying to clear her head of the lingering visions left there by dreams which had played through her mind during her brief moments of slumber. Her heart was heavy and her mind was a jumble of mixed thoughts as she struggled to decide what to do next.
    Until last evening, when she had seen his face again, Nellie had nearly reached the point of accepting the fact that Ho Sung was gone and out of her life for good. Although the idea was a painful one, she knew that time would heal her wounds and she would move on with her life in whichever direction fate had in store for her. Now, she found herself teetering on the edge of indecision once again. Sighing again, she rose and moved toward the dresser.

    Nellie closed her eyes and inhaled deeply as a wave of dizziness and nausea passed over her. She realized, suddenly, that she had not eaten since lunch the day before. After her encounter with Ho Sung, her appetite had abandoned her and she had gone home, bathed, and went straight to bed where sleep had abandoned her as well. After her dizzy spell passed, she quickly dressed and went downstairs to the kitchen where she forced herself to eat some toast and jam.
    Then she remembered she still had possession of the ancient spear that belonged to Jee Young's grandfather. She was grateful to have something to focus on besides her own personal issues, so she hurriedly left base camp and headed to find the other woman, hoping that she would have other tasks for her that would distract her and keep her busy.

    When Nellie handed her the spear, Jee Young exclaimed happily, " At last, my family's spear! I will send this to Grandfather at once; though I worry he will be so happy that he might become too excited. At his age, he must take things slowly, you know. Please take these coins. You have done so much for my family and its history that you will be forever remembered alongside the spear."
    Nellie was disappointed that Jee Young had no other tasks for her to do. She desperately wanted to find something to take her mind off her current dilemma for awhile. As she wandered around aimlessly after leaving Jee Young's house, she realized it was nearly time for Zhan to get off work, so she decided to go visit his house to wait for him. It was funny that she had never been to his house before, but it just seemed natural for them to meet up elsewhere up until now.

    " It is quite an honor to finally meet you, Nellie Blye" Shen Su said softly as they made their introductory bows. " Zhan has told us much about the one who saved Shang Simla from the consequences of Dong Huo's escape from his tomb in The Dragon Cave." Nellie was surprised to realize she was nervous to meet Zhan's older brother. She wondered if it had anything to do with the fact that he was romantically involved with Ho Sung's sister. Knowing that somehow made her feel slightly self-conscious as she worried how much he may know of the situation with Ho Sung.
    Nellie swallowed her anxiety and faced him head on. " It is nice to meet you as well" she smiled. Soon, she was at ease and was relieved that her worries were unfounded as the conversation turned to her adventures. Shen seemed most interested in her explorations, and she was happy to tell him about them.

    " My little brother should be home shortly" Shen offered with a smile. " His habits are usually very predictable." Nellie took the opportunity to make comparisons as Shen began to elaborate on his statement. At thirty-four, Shen was ten years Zhan's senior. Zhan had told Nellie a bit about his family. The reason for the age difference with no other siblings in between was because Mr. and Mrs. Su had only intended on having one child. It seemed that Zhan was either an accident or a blessing later in their lives.
    Nellie was fascinated by how little the resemblance was between Shen and Zhan. While Zhan's build was wiry, almost delicate, Shen had more bulk and was several inches taller as well. " Ah, there he is now" Shen smiled and nodded toward the door, bringing Nellie abruptly back to the present.

    It was enjoyable for Nellie to watch Zhan interacting with his extended family. Shen and Zhan shared a house with their cousins, who had three energetic children. The children seemed to especially love Zhan, who spent quite a bit of time chatting and playing games with them. Nellie had never seen a home with more bustling energy than this one, and she wondered what it would be like to be surrounded by so much family.
    Like Nellie, both of her parents had been only children, so she had no extended family. Once her grandmother had died, Nellie was left completely alone, without any family to lean on for support. She had been forced to become strong, independent, and self sufficient at an early age. It warmed her heart to see a large family together this way, but at the same time, it made her realize what she had been missing.

    " I am so glad you decided to visit, Nellie!" Zhan exclaimed breathlessly. " I do not get to enjoy a day off tomorrow, after all. Jiao has called in sick, so I have to fill in for her at the store."
    Nellie smiled, " I'm sorry about your lost day off, Zhan, but I am glad to have met your family and seen your home. It's really awesome!"
    As he watched Zhan and Nellie interact, Shen wondered if there would ever be more between the young couple than mere friendship. He had taken an instant liking to Nellie and would be proud to someday be able to call her family.

    " Is there anything wrong?" Zhan asked Nellie when they sat down to watch TV. Although, on the surface, she seemed to be her usual self, Zhan sensed that something was troubling his friend. He could see it in her eyes when she did not know he was looking. Ever since he had met her, and their friendship had developed into one of the most important aspects of his life, he felt they could share almost anything with each other, but now he felt she was holding something back. It hurt his heart to think she may have something bothering her that she felt she could not tell him. How could he help her if he had no knowledge of her problem? " You seem a little . . . distant" he prompted. " Would you like to go somewhere quiet so we can talk?"

    " I'm okay" Nellie smiled. As much as she would love to share her burden with someone, she could not see herself talking about it with Zhan. She was much too embarrassed to open up to him about her situation. Besides, just being around his family with all the various activities and conversations taking place was actually lifting her spirits and taking her mind away from her troubles for little while. " I'm having a nice time right here" she added brightly.
    Zhan sighed. He could tell his friend was being only half truthful, but he decided to let it drop. She would open up and share what was on her mind when she was ready. " I am glad, Nellie" he smiled.

    Nellie's mind drifted away from the program on the television as feelings of guilt for lying to her best friend settled into her heart. She wished desperately that she had someone to whom she could turn for advice, with whom she could be comfortable. Although Nellie had never known life any other way, it was during times like these when she wished she had a sibling, especially a sister in whom she could confide; even a female cousin, aunt, or her dear old departed grandmother. She struggled to hold back the tears that threatened to fall when she thought that having her mother alive and well would be best of all.
    Her melancholy thoughts were broken when an announcement was made that dinner had been served. Nellie and Zhan sat for awhile longer and allowed the children to be served first. All the places at the dining table taken, Nellie sat in the kitchen with Zhan and Shen.

    The conversation was light and casual as Shen, once again, asked Nellie about her adventures. Zhan and his older brother were especially fascinated by Nellie's accounts of her encounters with mummies, especially that of Dong Huo in The Dragon Cave. The men could scarcely wrap their minds around the fact that a woman had been able to defeat the evil warlord single-handedly, and had saved Shang Simla from his reawakening to wreak havoc on their peaceful village.
    " You are a very brave and noble woman, Nellie Blye" Shen complimented. " It is a great honor to be in your presence!" Nellie blushed and wondered if he would feel the same if he knew her dirty little secret.

    " Thank you so much, Zhan" Nellie said softly as she embraced her friend, " for inviting me into your home. Everyone has been so kind and I couldn't have been made to feel more welcome!"
    Zhan returned his friend's embrace with equal emotion. " You will always be welcome here, Nellie. I am so happy you came!"
    " Zhan" she whispered hoarsely, " you are right. I do have something on my mind, but I'm just not ready to talk about it. I'm sorry."
    " I knew that" he smiled. " I am here when you are ready." Nellie smiled, hugged him again, and then left to be alone with her thoughts once again.

    Ho Sung gaze scanned across the village in which he was born and raised. He marveled at how everything looked the same, but seemed so different now. When his eyes settled upon the base camp in which he knew Nellie spent her nights, his heart filled with longing and guilt. Five years before, at the tender age of twenty, when he had spoken his vows in his marriage ceremony, he had never intended to dishonor his family by breaking them. Until Nellie, he had never once been tempted. From the moment she had first entered the Food Merchant's Shop and their eyes had met, he had been lost. It felt as if his heart had become one with hers and was lost to him forever. He had tried desperately to fight the feelings that had taken over his every waking moment as well as his dreams, but to no avail. His conflicting emotions continued to grow stronger each day, threatening to overwhelm him and tear him apart.
    " I see you are at it again, Ho Sung" a soft voice interrupted his reverie. " How long have you been standing out here this time?"

    " Not so very long" Ho Sung lied. He had been on the deck since shortly after trying to force down some breakfast without much success around 7:00am, and now it was nearing 10:00am. It was easy to lose track of time when you became lost in thought. Ho Sung had known he should have refused Nellie's offer to visit her home, but the temptation had been too great, so he had accepted. One thing had led to another, and the love he felt for her in his heart had come to realization in the physical closeness they had shared.
    When the guilt had become too much to bear, he had fled back to his home and tried to return to his normal life, but it was fruitless. Soon, he realized that nothing would ever be the same and he could no longer face his family through his shame. That is when he had packed up a few of his belongings and fled to the retreat. No one had known where he was hiding for six weeks, until he had finally revealed his whereabouts to his sister, Sun Young Kim.

    " Thank you for coming, Sun" Ho Sung said as he turned to face her. " I do not know what I would do without you." Since he had secluded himself at the Resolute Fist Retreat, he had not ventured outside of its confines in the daylight. He had no wish to face anyone until a time when his shame and guilt had faded, if that time were ever to come. Finally, he had made contact with his sister and since then, she had been paying him a visit once a week to visit and bring him supplies from town. " How are you? Are things between Shen and you going well?" His expression and tone were melancholy and it hurt Sun's heart to see him this way.
    Sun hesitated in answering his question. Her brother had confided in her about his current dilemma, and the last thing she wanted was to rub his face in it by telling him how wonderfully her own romantic life was going. If not for certain events taking place, it could very well have been her standing where Ho Sung now stood. " We are doing very well" she finally replied. Ho Sung smiled, and she knew he was happy for her, but she could see a flicker of pain in his eyes.

    " I am so sorry you are going through all this" she said sadly, as she felt the sting of tears trying to escape her eyes. " Of all the people who do not deserve such heartache, you are at the top of the list." Many men were unfaithful to their wives in their culture, so that was nothing new. Their wives usually merely turned a blind eye to their husbands' indiscretions because men would be men. For the most part, those affairs were only physical and the marriages would remain intact. Ho Sung, however, was not a man who took his promises lightly, so when he found himself in love with Nellie and then allowed it to manifest into a physical thing as well, it was too much for him to bear, and he had taken it a step further by leaving his wife. Now, he had reached the point of no return.
    Sun reached to take her brother's hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. " I believe with all my heart that everything will be alright, one way or another. If this woman is your soul mate, you will be together one day, just like Shen Su and me. If not, you will find her one day. Hui Young is obviously not the one for you."

    Ho Sung grabbed his sister and wrapped his arms around her in a tight embrace. " Thank you for that" he murmured. " You have a way of knowing the right things to say at the right moment sometimes. I love you, little sister."
    " I love you, big brother" she replied as she hugged him closer. " Life can be strange. We both know that sometimes a really wonderful thing can come as a result of a horrible tragedy. It happened to me. Who knows? It may very well happen to you as well."
    Ho Sung, the hopeless romantic, had his doubts, but who was he to thwart his sister's optimistic outlook? " I hope so" he whispered softly. Could lightening really strike twice? Would it? All he could do now would be to wait, meditate, and continue to pray for the answers he hoped would come soon.

    Having been robbed of spending her day with Zhan, Nellie wandered around some of her favorite places in Shang Simla. Her first stop was The Scholar's Garden. It was a beautiful, sunny day, so she found a favorite spot and mediated for a while. Even deep meditation did not ease her troubled mind as much as she would have liked. She could not get her recent encounter with Ho Sung off her mind. The vision of his handsome face with his eyes saddened by heartache, pleading with her for understanding was an almost impossible thing to forget. Her emotions went from pain to sorrow to anger, and then back to pain again.
    All she really wanted was to remain furious. Anger was the least painful of all her emotions, and it was the one that left her sanity the most intact. How could she be understanding, when his actions had been so inexplicable? In her mind, he should never have toyed with her emotions in the first place. If she had been aware of his commitment to another woman, she would not have allowed herself to become involved with him.

    The next stop on Nellie's agenda was Han's Orchard, the place Zhan and she would have hung out together if he had not had to work. Almost immediately, loneliness set in and she missed her best friend's sunny presence. She spent a few hours fishing, which seemed to ease her troubled mind a little, although her loneliness was an entity hovering just below the surface.
    Suddenly, she found herself remembering another day, in another place, where she had spent a few hours with a most wonderful fishing partner. Now, she knew just what she had to do. Putting away her fishing pole, she reached into her bag and grabbed her cell phone.

    " Hello, Youssef?" Nellie said into the receiver. She felt a little nervous calling him out of the blue this way, but she felt it may be the best thing for her to do right now. " I . . . um, I was wondering if the task you mentioned a couple of weeks ago is still available?"
    His friendly chuckle reached her ears and she relaxed a bit. " Nellie" he exclaimed jovially, " it is wonderful to hear your voice! Of course I still have need of your services if you are willing to part with them. I would need you to report to my lackey, Dalida Barakat. I do not fully trust her, but one cannot always choose their employees. Do whatever is asked of you."
    " Of course" Nellie replied. " I'll see you soon!" She hung up and immediately called the airport for reservations, and then headed toward the market square.

    " Guess what, Zhan?" Nellie exclaimed breathlessly. " I'm heading off to Egypt first thing in the morning!"
    Zhan was stunned. He had expected his friend to hang around Shang Simla for while longer. He was disappointed he had not been able to spend more time with her on this visit, but he could tell her spirits had lifted a little at the notion of being off on another adventure. " I am happy if you are happy, Nellie" he said thoughtfully. " Are you really sure you are ready to leave so soon?"
    Nellie smiled, understanding her friend's discontent. " I think it is the best thing for me right now" she reassured him. " Don't worry. I will come back someday soon, and we will make it a point to spend more time together then! It's too bad you can't go with me." She hugged him tightly before leaving him alone wishing he really could go on the adventure with her. He sighed; maybe someday.

    With her bags packed and ready to go, Nellie stood out on the balcony outside her room at base camp, gazing out over the village she had come to think of as her second home. She would never stop being amazed at its beauty and how it made her smile. Her smiled faded, however, as her gaze fell upon the Resolute Fist Retreat in the distance. She had an eerie feeling that Ho Sung was standing there gazing in her direction, and that if she had a pair of binoculars, she would actually be able to see his face. She shook herself . . . hard. " Don't be silly!" she scolded herself. Then she wondered if it was such a silly notion after all.
    " I do love you, but I can never be with you again" she whispered sadly. " You must go back to your life and I must live mine as best I can." Nellie choked back the tears which threatened to fall. " Goodbye, Ho Sung" she croaked, stifling a sob.

    " Oh God" Nellie sobbed brokenly. Soon after she had arrived at base camp, she received word that Francois Lambert, the French Special Merchant, had passed away. She was stunned to say the least. Nellie knew the man was getting up in age, but he had seemed so healthy and vibrant the last time she had seen him. When she had first met him, she thought he was rather uppity and snobbish, but over the past few months, they had become the best of friends. The news nearly devastated her, but she knew life must go on and she had a mission to begin.
    She dried her tears, freshened up, and made her way to where she knew Dalida Barakat would be waiting for her arrival.

    " My name is Dalida Barakat" the woman smiled. " Youssef Nagi gives me all the hard jobs for this operation, typical MorcuCorp work ethic." She rolled her eyes and continued, " Gobble the easy profits and cower from trouble. Anyway, the boss did not properly budget our operations for this quarter. Obviously the locals expect to be paid. I need you to find four pieces of Turquoise, which I can use instead of cash payment. You may find some near the pyramids across the river, so I would start there first."
    As Nellie left to start her task, she wondered about the mixed signals she received from Dalida. Though she worked for MorcuCorp, she seemed quick to put it down. It was no wonder that Youssef did not put much trust into her.

    After all that had happened recently, Nellie was glad to have some alone time, while she hunted for the Turquoise she needed for this task. It gave her some time to think and allow her mind to grasp the situation. She sighed as she gazed at the beautiful pond, wishing she could just stay awhile and bring out her fishing rod. Instead, she knelt to pick up the stone that lay on the ground at her feet.

    She could scarcely believe that her friend, Francois Lambert was gone, Ho Sung was lost to her forever, and that Gustav Delven was expecting something from her that she was afraid she would not be able to provide, whether she wanted the same thing or not. Now, she was on a mission that seemed to have a dual purpose. Dalida Barakat worked for Youssef Nagi, yet she seemed to have little or no respect for the man.
    Nellie pushed her emotions to the back of her mind, as always, and made her way back to Dalida. Her adventure had to take precedence over her personal troubles. She had no time to allow such things to distract her at the moment.

    " This turquoise will keep operations moving along nicely" Dalida smiled when Nellie handed it to her. " Sending you to assist me is the best thing MorcuCorp has done in weeks! I hope you stick around." Dalida lowered her voice and leaned toward Nellie and continued, " I have some personal concerns about the reputation of MorcuCorp, and I believe the local citizenry is growing hostile. I would like you to get close to some of the other villagers and see what they think about this corporation."
    Now Nellie's curiosity was piqued, so although it felt rather like a betrayal to her blossoming friendship with Youssef Nagi, she agreed to do the task. After all, Youssef had asked her to do whatever was asked of her.

    Nellie went up to a man in the village square and asked him what he thought of MorcuCorp. He seemed hesitant to say anything at first, and when he answered, it was quite cryptic and strange.
    " Well, since you asked, I am not a big fan of those guys. When they laugh, it is really creepy."
    Nellie started to ask what he meant by that, but before she got the chance, he hurried away as if something was after him.

    " My father says they produce good products, but he is not happy about some of their business ethics" the teen-aged boy Nellie asked next replied thoughtfully. " I have not given it much thought myself, though. Someday I will leave this place when I grow up and become a great astrologist!"
    Nellie laughed. That explained why the boy had been so interested in the telescope before she had interrupted him. " That's wonderful" she smiled, 'thank you so much for your time." She looked around for a moment before deciding to enter the General Merchant's Shop. Maybe she would find better answers there.

    " I wish MorcuCorp would leave!" the General Merchant exclaimed with a dramatic wave of her hands. " It is all a big conspiracy, you see, between their secret leaders, the Landgraabs, and those illsiminati guys! They are taking over the world!"
    Nellie was taken aback by the General Merchant's reaction to her question, especially the mention of the Landgraabs. What did they have to do with all this? Nellie frowned. Those Landgraabs really were everywhere! Nellie thanked the woman and made her way back to Dalida to report what she had learned.

    " Ah, it is as I feared. But perhaps this will present an opportunity?" Dalida said with a smile. Then her demeanor turned more solemn. " Anyway, the documents have been deciphered and it's time to send you into the fire. Unfortunately for you, that is not a euphemism. MorcuCorp is interested in a strain of Flame Fruits that grow in the Tomb of the Burning Sands. I believe they plan to use them to help develop some kind of post-Atomic propulsion drive." She paused to reach into her pocket and continued, " Use this key to enter the tomb and gather some of these fruits. It is bound to be hot in there, so you may want to bring some Shower in a Can with you."
    Nellie assured the woman that she rarely went anywhere without Shower in a Can these days. This brought laughter from both women. Soon, Nellie was headed in the direction of the Pyramid of the Burning Sands.

    As Nellie fitted the keystone into its slot, she noticed the place reeked of sulfur and there was a suspicious heat emanating from within. She was already beginning to perspire and was happier than ever that she had come prepared as she opened the door and entered the room.

    Nellie was actually relieved to find a diving pool to explore. It was a great chance to cool down from the oppressive heat inside the tomb. There was a tunnel beneath the surface and she quickly swam through to the other side.

    She pulled out the Mighty Axe of Pangu for the first time in quite awhile to clear some rubble out of her way.

    Soon, Nellie entered a room where she had to move some statues around to pass. The statues also aided in disarming some fire traps that were blocking her path. Although it was sweltering hot, it felt nice to be doing something useful that took her mind off the personal problems which lay heavy in her heart.

    She found a hidden door and cautiously opened it, her heart racing in excitement to see what lay on the other side.

    There were treasure chests and more rubble to be brought down with the Ax of Pangu.

    Finally, she entered another room which held a diving pool to be explored. Nellie was definitely ready to get cool again, so she happily dove in to explore. There was a hidden tunnel in this pool as well, so she swam through it to the other side.

    The tunnel was longer than the last one and Nellie broke the surface coughing and gasping for air. She was ill-prepared for what awaited her in this chamber. It was the hottest one yet, with fire traps blazing all around her. A quick scan of the room told Nellie what needed to be done next.

    She quickly hopped out of pool and dragged a statue onto a panel in the floor. Immediately, the chains fell from the door directly behind her and she turned toward it with a smile.

    Nellie slowly entered the chamber, her eyes widening in astonishment. There it was; the coveted Flame Fruit! She moved toward the plants and began to quickly harvest them, taking enough so that she would have some to plant in her garden at home.

    Suddenly a wave of sadness struck her as she finished harvesting the last plant. A picture of her dear-departed friend's face entered her mind's eye and it felt as if her heart were breaking. Francois Lambert would have loved to have some of these fruits to grow in his garden for nectar-making purposes. Now he would never get to do so. She then wondered about his memoirs and all the tasks she had done for him to make it possible. Had he thought to commission someone to write his book for him in case of just such a tragedy as his own death?
    With a heavy heart and the realization of just how suddenly a life could be lost, Nellie left the tomb and made her way back to Dalida Barakat with her cargo.

    " Wonderful, you found the Flame Fruit!" Dalida exclaimed. " Your effort is to be commended, but perhaps we can put it to better use. MorcuCorp believes Zahra Diab may have information on these relics they are looking for. Zahra Diab knows about some sort of old book that may contain precious information that we need. Go see Zahra to obtain this information."
    Nellie readily agreed and headed to the address Dalida gave her. This mission seemed to be taking on a life all its own, and she was very happy to be busy.

    " There is an ancient library hidden in a home in town. Inside, you will find a chest with the information you seek." Zahra Diab replied after Nellie explained her mission. " It is the house next door, to be exact" she added with a nod to her left. You may need to befriend the owners of the house before being granted access, though." Zahra smiled and went inside her home, leaving Nellie alone with her thoughts.
    Nellie's heart began to race erratically as she gazed at the house. She would not need to befriend its owner because she already had. It was Youssef Nagi's house! How could she approach him about this? Did he know of the ancient library? She hung her head and closed her eyes to think. Caught up in her thoughts, she did not hear the footsteps approaching her on the hot, hard-packed sand.

    " Nellie" Youssef's voice reached her ears, " what is wrong? You look so sad and forlorn. Has something happened to upset you?" The man was thrilled to finally see her again, but it disturbed him to see her in such a state. When he had first met her, she had been so enthusiastic and jovial.
    At the sound of Youssef's sympathetic voice and the sight of the concern in his eyes, Nellie's tenacity was broken. All the emotions she had been feeling for the last several weeks seemed to come crashing down on her at once. Her heart raced, her knees felt weak enough to buckle beneath her weight, and her head began to swim in such a way that made her feel nauseous and faint. Suddenly, the dam of tears she had been holding in burst free and flowed freely down her cheeks in tiny rivulets.

    " Oh Youssef" Nellie sobbed as she impulsively buried her face against his shoulder. " Everything has gone wrong lately!" Nellie mumbled a string of intelligible sentences and broken phrases as Youssef held her, patting her back to try to offer her some comfort. " . . . And then today" Nellie murmured in actual words that could be understood, " Today, I learned that one of my best friends passed away and . . . and he is in France, so far away, and I cannot even be there to comfort his family or be present at his funeral!"
    " There, there Nellie" Youssef murmured softly against her hair. " It will be alright. I am so sorry you are having such a hard time, but in time, things will be better. I am sure your friend would not want to see you in such a state. You may lean on me as much as you may need." His words seemed to snap Nellie out of her hysteria, and she suddenly felt like a fool.

    " Oh God, I'm so sorry, Youssef" Nellie cried as she pulled back from him. " I . . . I don't know what came over me!" She felt her cheeks blush hotly from the humiliation she felt. " It's just that I . . . I have been under a lot of pressure lately and now . . . ." Her words trailed off as her mind raced to find the next words she needed to express. " Now, my mission has led me to . . . your house!"
    Youssef's expression turned to one of puzzlement as he gently lifted her chin and gazed intently into her eyes, " My house?" Nellie nodded and told him about the alleged ancient library and asked him if he knew anything about it, or the book that was supposedly hidden there.
    " How interesting" he replied thoughtfully. " Come." Wrapping an arm around her waist, he walked her the few feet to his house and stopped out front.

    " I know nothing about this library, or this book, but you are more than welcome to look" he said softly. " It would seem that I would know everything about my own house after having lived in it for several years, but you can never know, yes?" He smiled reassuringly at her.
    Nellie was surprised at how calm and understanding he seemed. " Thank you, Youssef," she smiled, feeling silly about how anxious she had been about the prospect of asking him for permission to explore his home. " I think I know where to start" she offered.
    " Lead the way, Nellie" he said, gesturing with his arm for her go ahead of him. Youssef found the whole thing rather amusing and slightly ridiculous. How could there be a hidden library on his property without his knowing about it?

    Youssef watched as Nellie inspected a hole in the patio floor. He had seen the hole before, but thought it may contain a water valve shutoff switch to the house or something and had never bothered to mess around with it. " I noticed this hole the last time I was here" Nellie told him as she moved her hand around inside the dark space. " This is a pretty common thing inside the tombs I explore. You never know what you may find inside."
    " That may be so, but I find it unlikely that something like a whole library could be here without my knowledge. It is a very interesting notion, however. I…" His voice broke of abruptly as a loud scraping sound rose up from behind him. Nellie stood with a satisfied smile plastered on her face as she dusted off her hands.

    " Incredible!" Youssef exclaimed breathlessly as he gazed down the newly-revealed stairwell. " I never realized . . ."
    " Told you" Nellie laughed. The expression on the man's face was priceless. He truly had not known about the hidden room beneath his house. Nellie searched his eyes trying to think of a way to tell him she would like to be left alone to explore the library, but there was no need.
    As tempted as he was to follow the woman down into the ancient library to see it with his own eyes, he had other matters which needed his attention. He smiled, " Well, if you will excuse me, I have some work to do in my study. Perhaps when you are done, we shall have lunch together, yes?" Nellie watched as he went into the house, and then she made her way down the stairs into the musty room.