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Strange and ever after, p.10
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       Strange and Ever After, p.10

           Susan Dennard
 
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  I reared back. “That was not Elijah in Marseille.”

  “Close enough,” Oliver muttered to himself. “It is what he would have become.” Then louder, “I am not on this team, Eleanor. I will never be on this team any more than I will ever be human. Remember that.”

  Demon. Jie’s voice whispered through my brain—the way she had looked at Oliver. The way he had vanished afterward.

  “Once I find the Old Man,” he went on, “then I am done with this. Jacques Girard told me what must be done, and once this command”—he clutched at his stomach, his teeth clenching—“is complete, then I can go home. You may set me free, and I can return to my peaceful existence in the spirit realm. Finally.”

  “But what of Marcus? He must be stopped.”

  “I do not care about Marcus.”

  “He stole Elijah’s body.” I grabbed Oliver’s shoulder, tried to turn him toward me. “I thought that mattered to you.”

  “No.” The word shot out. Then, faster than I could react, Oliver closed me in against the wall. “Elijah,” he whispered, “got exactly what he deserved, El. Can you not see that? There is nothing to avenge.”

  “You loved him. You told me you loved him.”

  “And he betrayed me.” Oliver moved back, and he glared at me through half-closed lids. “First loves are blind. And second loves . . .” He snorted, shifting back to the porthole once more. “Second loves are even more so.”

  “So you will leave me?” I grabbed at his arm.

  “Yes,” he said simply.

  “H-how? I have to set you free—within two months. That was the deal.” My fingers fisted around the fabric of his sleeve. “If I do not set you free, then you cannot leave me.”

  “Is that what you think?” The edge of his lip twitched up. “Oh, naive Eleanor. You only ever see what you want to see, don’t you? Take me, for example.” His face angled toward me. “You only see a demon bound to his master—and you’re right. I may not be a man . . . but it does not mean I lack for feelings.

  “I have wants too,” he went on, “and the more I’m trapped in this human body, the more I find myself wanting like a man wants. Feeling like a man feels. As if the demon pieces of my soul are rubbing off and washing away.” He dipped in closer, his voice dropping to a mere whisper. “So be careful, El. Be careful how you treat me, for one day you may find you’ve pushed me too far.”

  You might wake up and find me gone.

  His threat pulsed through my skull. Actual words—just like the jackal’s.

  I gasped, releasing his sleeve. “How did you do that? Put your thought inside my mind?”

  “There is much I can do that you do not know about.” Oliver flourished his hands and sauntered back two steps—though a stiffness marked the movement, as if he too might have been surprised.

  “But . . . you cannot leave me,” I insisted. “You need me—to command your magic.”

  “Then I suppose you will have to push me too far, El, and see what happens. Or”—his eyes narrowed—“if you bear me any affection at all, then simply be kind. And please, do not go into the spirit realm. You risk us both each time you do.” Then, with a graceful twirl, he moved toward the door. “What is the line, El? From A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Something about a spaniel . . .”

  “‘I am your spaniel,’” I said hollowly, watching him cross the cabin. “‘And the more you beat me, I will fawn on you.’”

  He snapped his fingers. “That’s the one. Except . . .” He pulled the door lightly open and glanced back at me with a pained smile. “I am not a spaniel, and the more you beat me, I will run.”

  I stared at the sunrise for what felt like hours. Oliver’s words had cut deep, and though I did not see how he could leave me—I was the master; he was bound to me—I was scared to test his threat. If he could speak straight into my mind, what else could he do?

  As selfish as I knew it was, Oliver was the only thing I had left from my former life. The only thing that still tied me to Elijah. I needed that bond, for in just two short weeks, my magical link to this demon had become as familiar to me as my pulse.

  I did not want to push him so far away that he was gone forever. At least not until this was over. Not until Marcus was gone and the world was right again.

  Eventually I withdrew the ivory fist from my pocket and held it to the porthole. It almost looked as if its shape had shifted—as if the fingers were beginning to unfurl. My brow wrinkled, and I examined it more closely . . . until I forgot what I was doing.

  Whatever strange artifact this was, at least while I looked at it I did not have to think about Oliver. Or Mama. Or Daniel’s mechanical hand, now lying beneath my pillow. Or Jie’s broken gaze. Or anything at all. Somehow, simply staring at the fist made my heart settle and my brain ease. I lost track of time and thoughts, and I smiled.

  But eventually I heard voices in the hall. Jie’s soft voice. It called me back to the present—I wanted to speak to her. I missed her.

  So I returned the fist to my pocket and hurried into the hall. Jie was just walking into the pilothouse, and by the time I reached the glass room, she was at the wheel. She leaned on the spokes, her head in her hands. Though she stiffened slightly at my approach, she did not look my way.

  “Have you slept?” I asked gently, moving to her side.

  “No.” Her fingers curled around one of the spokes. “I . . . don’t want to.”

  “You’re safe here.”

  She turned her face toward me. In the bright morning sun, her eyes looked like endless pools of amber. “Am I?” She lifted her left arm, and a lump bulged beneath her sleeve. “I’m completely dependent on this.” She rolled back her sleeve to reveal a metal canister not much larger than a thimble. At one end was a round bit of rubber.

  “What is that?”

  “It’s called a cup.” Jie tapped the rubber. “This makes a suction—or I think that’s what Daniel said. It pulls out a few droplets of blood every second.”

  “So Daniel made it?”

  Jie nodded. “Based on what Miss Wilcox described.”

  “Does it work?”

  “Yeah.” She wet her lips, staring at it with blank eyes. “For now. But when I sleep? When I dream?”

  I frowned. “What do you mean?”

  “Is it worse to go to sleep and drown in the terror?” She swung her head forward, her gaze so distant, I thought she saw another world entirely. “Or is it worse to wake up and find it’s real?”

  I swallowed, unsure what to say. At last I simply asked. “Were you . . . aware when you were with him?”

  “Sometimes I would return to my mind, frozen in place and seeing him. Sometimes we would be walking. Sometimes he would be speaking to me . . . or dressing m—” She broke off and shuddered. “I-I never knew if those moments were intentional. If he let me be in my brain and see from my eyes so I would know how helpless I was. Or maybe he just lost control of his magic from time to time. At least I was only with him for one day.” She inhaled deeply. “At least you came for me.”

  “Of course we came for you.”

  “Right,” she said absently. Then she sighed through her nose and gave an empty smile. “Daniel speaking to a Wilcox. It’s hard to believe, yeah?”

  I blinked at the sudden change in subject.

  “And Miss Wilcox isn’t the only strange thing I found on here,” Jie went on. “Your, uh . . . demon is here too.” There was a tightness—a bitterness even—in her voice.

  And guilt grated against my insides. So much had happened in such a short time—Jie had returned to a world upheaved.

  “Joseph explained Oliver to me,” she added. “He says the demon helped us.”

  “He has.” I lowered my hands.

  “Then I guess it’s all right if he’s here.” Yet nothing in her voice said she felt all right. Especially when she murmured again, “Yeah, it’ll be all right.”

  We descended into silence. The only sound was the engine, the occasional whip of win
d against the gondola, and the opening and closing of doors. Soon enough, Allison bustled into the pilothouse, her chin up. “It is time for more bloodletting,” she declared with all the authority of a doctor. “Roll up your sleeve, Miss Chen.”

  My eyebrows lifted. And with a deftness I never would have expected, Allison released the suction on Jie’s vacuum, slipped a clean bandage over the wound, and quickly bound it up. “Other arm,” she said, and Jie extended her right arm. Allison patted the soft skin below her elbow and then extended a sharp lancet.

  Jie inhaled. Allison slashed. Blood blossomed. Then Allison set a second suctioning cup against the wound, squeezed the rubber tip to draw out the air . . . and released.

  The cup stayed sucked firmly against Jie’s arm.

  “If only we had leeches,” Allison murmured, shooting Jie an apologetic look. “Then we could just pop one of those on you, and I would not have to cut you every hour before the old incisions scab over. But if we cannot find leeches in Egypt, then a scarificator will do. It won’t hurt as much, at least.” Her gaze slid to me, lips puffing out. “Thank goodness I was here to help Miss Chen, no?”

  Before I could offer a response, Jie made a guttural sound. Her face was unusually pale. “I don’t feel good,” she said.

  Allison whipped an apple from her pocket. “Because you must eat.”

  Jie accepted the fruit, and I cleared my throat. “So you learned about this”—I motioned to the thimble filled with blood that now rested in Allison’s palm—“because of your father?”

  “Yes. Our doctor insisted it would get rid of his . . .” Allison hesitated, as if searching for a delicate word. But she gave up and shrugged. “Violence.” She scoffed, and after capping the used thimble with rubber and placing it in her medical kit, she muttered to herself, “It didn’t work.”

  And with those three words the world shifted. My view of Allison came into such a clear, sharp focus, I stopped breathing. I had spent my entire childhood envying her. Everything always seemed to come so easily—from friendship to comfort. When I had scrimped and saved, she had flaunted her wealth in my face.

  But I had never—not once—considered what happened inside her home.

  I gulped, suddenly hot and uncomfortable. Maybe Allison and I were not so different. Maybe we both had nightmares in our pasts.

  And maybe all that time I had hated Clarence for bullying Elijah, I should have considered who might be bullying Clarence.

  “Land.” Jie’s voice broke through my thoughts. She pointed. “Look—land!”

  Allison darted to the glass, and I rubbed my palms on my pants—physically pushing away my distress. Then I moved to the windows as well and squinted into the bright morning light. I could just make out a shift in the horizon to our left—due south.

  “Daniel!” Jie shouted, scrabbling toward the hall. “We’re approaching land!”

  “Shhhh.” Joseph’s voice hissed into the pilothouse as he entered. “Daniel sleeps, and I believe I can manage to get us aimed for Cairo.” His eyes landed briefly on me. “Am I correct in assuming this is where we must go?”

  “I . . .” My mouth bobbed shut. I did not know—Oliver had not yet told me.

  Fortunately, Joseph did not wait for an answer. He strode to the left table of charts and thumbed through pages.

  Giza. Oliver’s thought flashed in my mind. Startling and clear. We must go to the pyramids. For half a breath I saw through Oliver’s eyes—through his porthole. He watched the approaching craggy, yellow land. . . .

  And then a sharp stab hit my lungs. Aching, wrenching pain impaled me. Impaled him. For this was the place where Elijah had chosen power and revenge instead of Oliver.

  I held my lips tight and tamped down on our bond. Shoved it deep inside until I could not feel how much Oliver hurt.

  “Giza,” I ground out. “We must go to the pyramids.”

  “Which are beside Cairo,” Joseph said, tapping at a map. Then he spun around and moved to the steering wheel. “We must head farther south then, and less east.” With great care and a pensive expression, he shifted the wheel right, shoved in two of the levers, and then waited. . . .

  We all waited, feeling the airship adjust its course . . . and then aim us directly for long strips of beach.

  Minutes trickled past until at last the turquoise water vanished beneath us, and we puttered into a flat country, as smooth as glass.

  We were in Egypt.

  The airship left a perfect, egg-shaped shadow on the barren sands below, and for a time it seemed this desert land must be empty . . .

  Until Allison spotted the first mud village. We all crowded against the right side of the pilothouse and stared while robed figures came out, hands over their heads, to gape up at us. When Joseph pointed out the first mosque, we rushed to the other side to stare at its elaborate minaret. And at the first string of camels, led by the nomadic Bedouin, I ogled with as much wonderment as Allison. Even Jie managed a twitch of a smile.

  Over the dry earth we traveled. We passed fields of colorful corn and groves of green dates, tended by women and donkeys and irrigated with long channels that eventually wound and snaked like silver threads to the mighty Nile.

  “I have always wanted to go to Egypt,” Allison said in a reverent tone as we floated over a waving field of wheat. “Ever since Father invested in an expedition when I was a little girl, I have dreamed of seeing it.”

  “What was the expedition?” I asked, watching the cloaked women and donkeys move through the field.

  “It was led by a professor at the University of Philadelphia. Rodney . . . Milton—yes, that was it.” Her lips slid into a frown. “Do you recall him? They made a big fuss over him in the local paper, and I think they had one of his mummies on display at the Centennial Exhibition. He found some special burial ground a few years back. Since Father funded the trip, we were supposed to receive half of whatever treasure he uncovered.”

  She paused for a dramatic eye roll. “Of course, we never received anything, and Mother still complains of it. Clarence even hired a detective to find Milton, but when a man is all the way in Cairo, it is hard to actually demand a debt be paid.”

  “You could try to find him now,” I offered, fighting to ignore the way Clarence’s name made my chest squeeze with guilt. “You are near to Cairo.”

  “Perhaps,” Allison mumbled, her attention already focused back outside. Then she gasped. “Look! It’s the Nile!”

  I snapped my gaze ahead—and my own breath caught in my throat. For never had I seen a river so powerful. Its brown, muddy waters moved so gently, with the age and patience of a river that had seen more civilizations rise and fall than any other. The rich, green landscape only grew denser the closer we came to it, and there was no missing how black the soil became.

  The sun reached its zenith soon after Joseph shifted the airship directly south, to follow the Nile’s path to Cairo. The room had grown hot—a veritable greenhouse—and I was sweating. We were all sweating.

  Wiping a sleeve over my forehead, I wandered into the hall to get water from the galley. Yet Daniel strode out just as I turned in.

  I pulled up short, and he lurched to a stop. Once I’d freed my heart from my esophagus, I scanned his face for some sign of how he felt. . . .

  But I did not need to search, for he made it abundantly clear right away that he harbored no harsh feelings.

  “I made potatoes for everyone. I ain’t the best cook, but . . .” He motioned vaguely into the galley. “Hopefully they’ll fill you up. Oh!” He spun toward the table. “I also cut some bread. I think it might be a bit stale, but I slathered enough butter on there that you shouldn’t notice.”

  “Th-thank you,” I stammered.

  He gave a half smile and rubbed his hands together. “Well, I reckon I should get flyin’. Eat up before it goes cold.” He sidestepped me into the hall. “Jie! Your garlic mash is ready!”

  I watched him go, a mixture of gratitude and affection and . . . and
love rolling in my heart.

  Not for the first time, regret twined through me for last night. Did a grieving heart stop what I felt for him? No. So why had summoning the words been so impossible?

  In a daze of hunger and muddled emotions, I moved to a metal pot on the table. Inside were boiled potatoes—unpeeled, but appetizing. As long as there was silverware (there was) and butter (heaps of it), I was happy.

  As I munched beside the porthole, I pondered how best to confess my feelings to Daniel. What to say. When to say it.

  Soon Jie joined me to eat her raw garlic mashed with potatoes. She grimaced as she ate but didn’t complain, and we watched the view drift by.

  Steamers and boats sailed below us, and the farther south we went—and the closer to Cairo we came—the more traffic there was on the Nile. And the more people on the riverbanks. Fishing, bathing, washing clothes—it seemed to be a part of each and every person’s life. It was so unlike the Delaware River back in Philadelphia—a fickle, wild force—or the river Seine in Paris, with its elegant, structured waterways. The Nile seemed to be the very lifeblood of Egypt.

  “It’s kinda cloudy, yeah?” Jie smacked her lips and tipped back a glass of water. “I thought Egypt was always sunny.”

  “Well, it must rain sometime,” I replied, leaning into the glass. “But you’re right. It is cloudy. And windy.” I motioned to gusting palm trees below. “There must be quite a storm coming.”

  “And coming in fast.” She frowned. “It’s getting darker by the second. I’ve never seen clouds move so fast.”

  I tugged at my earlobe, alarm prickling along my neck. Then, without a word, I scrambled into the hall. Daniel and Joseph stood side by side at the wheel, their shoulders tense.

  “The storm,” I said, hurrying into the pilothouse—and catching full sight of the rolling gray clouds ahead. “It isn’t right.”

  “We know,” Daniel replied, his gaze intent on the horizon. “But we’re only a few minutes outside of Cairo.”

  Joseph offered me the spyglass. “That rise in the distance is where the city is.”

 
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