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Strange and ever after, p.12
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       Strange and Ever After, p.12

           Susan Dennard
 
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  My heart was thrashing erratically, but not because we’d almost died. Or even because Daniel held me. I was finally going to get what I wanted, and this time I would not balk.

  “I’ve saved your life three times now.” I splayed three fingers on his chest. Beneath the thin cotton of his shirt, his pulse bounced as fast as mine. “First at the dynamite factory, then in the Paris underground, and now this.”

  His lips quirked up. “That makes us even, then.” His smile faltered . . . and then fell again. “Promise me something.” He reached up and ran his knuckles down my jaw. I held my breath and strained to listen. “Promise me you’ll never do something like that again.”

  “I can’t promise that, Daniel.”

  His fingers paused. “Why?”

  “Why do you think?”

  He swallowed, glancing down at my hand on his chest. Then he flinched. “You’re hurt—oh hell, you’re bleeding.” He yanked up my right sleeve, and, sure enough, blood was sliding down my arm from my elbow.

  A giggle broke through my lips. “I must have cut myself on the acacia thorns.”

  Daniel’s brow furrowed. “I don’t see why it’s funny.”

  “It doesn’t hurt,” I declared, but Daniel ignored me. He set to rolling up my sleeve, and moments later, once my forearm was exposed, his breath came hissing out. It was a huge gash—the sort that would need cleaning and salves. The sort that should be causing pain.

  “We need to bind that immediately.” Daniel met my eyes, worried. “And your demon ain’t here, so it’s got to be the normal way.”

  “Pshaw.” I pulled my arm free from his. It was tender, but nothing I couldn’t handle. “I told you: it doesn’t hurt.”

  “And I don’t care.” Avoiding my eyes and with his jaw muscles twitching, he ripped off the bottom half of my sleeve. It was stained with blood but not yet soaked through. So he wrapped it tightly around the wound.

  When he was finished, he pointed east. “Walk.”

  “To where?” I glowered. “And since when are you in charge?”

  “Since you got drunk off your black magic and lost the ability to think clearly.” He sighed . . . then groaned. “I don’t want to fight about this, all right? I am so, so, so grateful that you saved me, but that”—he pointed at my arm—“scares the hell out of me. So please, just do as I say. And walk.”

  I eyed him. A thousand retorts lay on the tip of my tongue, but I swallowed them back. I would not shout at him. And I would not cry. I would cling to this magical strength for as long as it would let me.

  But then panic jolted through me. My hand shot into my pocket to search for . . .

  My breath whooshed out, relieved. The ivory fist was still there . . . though a fist no longer. Tracing the feel of its carvings, I could tell the fingers had further unfurled.

  I had no idea what it meant, and I wasn’t in the mood to contemplate it. “Fine, Daniel,” I declared. “I’ll do as you say, and I will walk. But you follow me. I know where Oliver is—I can sense him through our bond.”

  Daniel’s face tightened, but he did not argue. So with an unhappy inventor on my heels, I felt for Oliver—closer, ever closer—and set off at a steady march through the fields of sugarcane.

  It took us almost an hour to find Oliver—and the balloon. Endless fields of sugarcane, dates, and cotton . . . endless mosquitoes and flies. Endless heat. Hawks glided overhead, while lapwings fluttered everywhere like butterflies.

  I was desperate for water within minutes—especially seeing all the canals from the Nile that separated farms in place of hedges. But I doubted it was drinkable, and there was no one to ask. The fields were abandoned—likely to avoid the afternoon heat—and the few veiled women still out tending the crops did not seem open to conversation.

  My arm began to hurt by the third farm—not badly, but it did throb as blood seeped out. The magic had already worn off. I was desperate for more, but too ashamed to use it with Daniel there. I tried, albeit halfheartedly, to speak—about the landscape or the bugs—but he only gave me one-word answers. He did not seem angry with me. Only sad. And silent.

  But he did check on me several times, to rewrap the wound or to inspect me for other injuries. I think he could tell the magic had faded, but neither he nor I knew how to make amends. So silence it was until we finally crested a hill and reached a sprawling village of flat-roofed buildings and sycamore trees. In the distance, ruins crumbled—Greek, by the look of the ornate columns thrusting up amid fields of grass and dust.

  But what caught my eye was an obelisk that jutted out of the ruins. Much like the one in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, it towered over everything—even the small city. Sycamores grew all around it, and draped over one gnarled tree was a sprawling heap of white fabric. It billowed in the breeze like a sail.

  The airship.

  Daniel and I pushed into a jog. People were clustered around the covered sycamore . . . and the gondola behind it. As we approached, I could see that it lay in the grass like a ship run aground.

  A whoop sounded—Jie’s voice. Then Joseph’s. In moments they were racing through the knee-high grass toward us.

  Never had I seen them look so happy. But it was not to me that they ran. It was to Daniel. They flung their arms around him in a frenzied embrace, and I saw tears pouring from Joseph’s eyes. Jie’s as well.

  “Foolish man,” Joseph cried over and over. “Foolish, foolish man! I could never forgive you—or myself—if you were to sacrifice yourself like that. Foolish man.”

  Daniel pulled back, his eyes shining and head shaking. “My life’s nothin’ compared to yours.”

  Jie punched him in the arm—hard. “Don’t ever say that again, yeah?” Then she yanked him back into a hug.

  For a moment, hurt wrangled through me. Were they not happy to see me? Or at least grateful I had saved Daniel’s life?

  But then Joseph’s tear-filled eyes—and Jie’s too—landed on me, and there was no denying the gratitude in their smiles.

  So I grinned back before turning my gaze to the balloon to find Oliver. He lounged against the gondola, his eyes firmly on me. Even from here I could see his nonchalance was an act—and not only because of the flush in his cheeks, but also the absolute stillness in his face. Grass waved around his legs, and his curls kicked up in the breeze.

  I lifted my fingers in a tentative wave . . . and a subtle, tender warmth bathed over me. Oliver’s happiness. His relief.

  My smile grew. It was good to be alive.

  Then Allison appeared around the gondola and spotted me. She bounced on her toes and clapped—looking beyond ecstatic that I was returned.

  I gave the Spirit-Hunters a final look. They were still caught up in their tearful reunion, so I jogged the rest of the way through the shimmering grass. The locals noticed me soon enough, and after pointed fingers and chattered words, several children darted at me.

  “Baksheesh!” they cried, pushing their open hands to me. “Baksheesh! Baksheesh!”

  I smiled, my face bunching up in confusion, and scooted onward until I finally popped out before Oliver, Allison, and the gleaming gondola.

  “What do they want?” I cried, shooing at a child who refused to let go of my pants.

  “Baksheesh,” Oliver said with an amused smirk. “It means ‘charitable gift.’ The Egyptians expect it from everyone.” He sauntered toward me, and his eyes flickered to the children’s. And thank the merciful heavens my demon knew so many languages, for after a few barked words of Arabic, the children finally released me—and shot straight for Allison.

  I looked up at Oliver with a smile. “You survived,” I said.

  He stepped to me and brushed a light, almost casual kiss over my forehead. “As did you.”

  My heart stumbled—just a tiny catch. He was very happy to see me.

  But then his gaze settled on my arm, and a frown creased his forehead. “Should I heal you?”

  “No.” I glanced at Allison. She gestured wildly at
the children, but they refused to stop yanking at her skirts.

  I turned back to Oliver. “I’ll go with normal healing this time.”

  “Ah,” he said with a knowing arch of his eyebrow. Luckily, he dropped the subject and simply turned a snarl on the Egyptian kids—and in a flurry of shouts and laughter, they finally scampered back toward town.

  Allison threw her arms around me. “I thought you were dead! You just jumped right off the balloon, and then I didn’t see you again.” She lurched back, gripping my shoulders. “What the blazes were you thinking? Mr. McIntosh kept insisting you were fine, but I do not see how he could possibly know. And yet here you are!” She hugged me again. “You are fine! And you are alive! And, oh goodness, Eleanor, I do not ever want to experience that again.”

  “What happened?” I asked.

  “Well,” she said, her expression animated as she pulled away, “Mr. Boyer managed to land us, but not before those awful creatures hurtled into us. What were they called again, Mr. McIntosh?”

  “Hell Hounds,” Oliver offered with an almost indulgent smile. I could only suppose that near-death had made him and Allison tentative allies—and that Oliver had realized he now wore a last name. He responded to Mr. McIntosh as if born to it.

  Allison shivered. “Hell Hounds. They hit us, Eleanor, and we were spinning and spinning for at least a hundred feet—”

  “More like fifty,” Oliver amended.

  “—until we hit the ground so hard, I thought my teeth would break. And then the balloon just . . . poof.” She flicked her wrists up. “I do not know how we’ll ever get off the ground now.”

  I glanced at Oliver. “Is it that bad?”

  He shrugged one shoulder. “That will be for your inventor to decide, but . . . it certainly won’t be easy to fix.”

  Oliver was right. Once Daniel had assessed the damage, we learned the engine had been so knocked about that it would take at least the rest of the day to repair. But more concerning was that we needed fuel—the only way to inflate the balloon was with heated air. A lot of it.

  After a great deal of asking around, Oliver managed to find a vendor in the nearby village who had sufficient oil . . . but not at an affordable price. “The man wants two hundred British pounds,” Oliver told Joseph, “and I cannot talk him down.”

  Joseph, Allison, and I stood beside the open gondola hatch while Daniel and Jie yanked out floorboards in the cargo hold—Daniel needed better access to his engine. Meanwhile, our robed fuel salesman leaned on his donkey beneath a sycamore tree nearby. He stroked his mustache and looked very pleased by the inevitable fortune coming his way.

  Joseph massaged his forehead. “We cannot possibly afford that. I do not even have a quarter of it.”

  “Perhaps we could try a different village,” I suggested, but the grim slant to Oliver’s brow told me we weren’t likely to find a better price anywhere. Swatting at flies that kept attacking my bleeding arm, I turned to Allison. “How much money do you have?”

  She winced and shrank back. “Not much more than Mr. Boyer.”

  I blinked. “Your mother let you leave Philadelphia with less than fifty dollars?”

  Her wince deepened, and she stoutly refused to meet my eyes. “My mother did not precisely approve of my trip. In fact, she swore she would not contribute a dime. What little money I have is what I managed to save myself.”

  My breath wuffed out, and I fought to keep the disappointment off my face—it was hardly Allison’s fault we were poor. “Do we have any idea how long it would take to reach Giza from here?” I asked Oliver.

  He hollered the question over to our new Egyptian friend—who quickly hollered back an answer.

  “Half a day by horse,” Oliver translated.

  I lowered my hands. “That is not so bad then. If we had horses, I mean.”

  “But it would be better if we had the airship,” Joseph muttered. He shook his head. “What if we must make another escape like Marseille? This balloon has been invaluable to us so far, and I do not want to abandon it if we can help it.”

  “Well,” Allison inserted hesitantly, “we can assume this Marcus fellow is at least a day or two behind us, no? A boat cannot possibly cross the Mediterranean as quickly as an airship. So you could feasibly fix the balloon and still reach Giza before him.”

  “Except for the money,” Oliver reminded. “And I do not think we can convince this man that donating his fuel is a worthwhile investment.”

  Investment. The word jostled around in my brain . . . and then solidified into an idea. “Investment!” I gripped at Allison’s hands. “That professor you mentioned—we could find him! You could collect your debt, and we could use the money to repair the balloon.”

  “You mean Professor Milton?” Allison’s eyes widened. “B-but he probably isn’t around anymore. And even if he was, I haven’t the faintest idea where to begin looking. Clarence’s detective found him at . . . at some hotel. Shepheard’s, I believe.”

  “Shepheard’s?” Oliver asked, eyebrows rising with interest. “You are certain?”

  “No!” she wailed. “It was a year ago, and I wasn’t very interested. And who knows if he is still there after all this time?”

  “Well, Shepheard’s is in Cairo, Miss Wilcox. It’s, uh . . .” Oliver waved a mosquito from his face. “It’s a hotel where all the Westerners stay, and if your professor is still in the area, it’s very likely he would stay there. Someone at the hotel will surely know.”

  Joseph folded his arms over his chest, his face screwed up with concentration. For several moments, the only sound was the wind in the grass, the huffing of the donkey, and the groaning of resistant gondola floorboards.

  “I suppose,” Allison mused aloud, “that if we went into Cairo, then we could also get Miss Chen a scarificator.”

  Joseph remained silent, but his eyes twitched.

  “And,” Allison went on, an undeniable layer of syrup in her tone, “we could find turmeric to thin her blood. Perhaps we could also find fresh bandages for you, Mr. Boyer.”

  Another eyelid twitch. Then Joseph nodded once, his eyes coming back into focus. “All right. It is decided then. Allison and Oliver . . . and you as well, Eleanor. You must go to Cairo and try to acquire enough funding for fuel—or possibly find a cheaper fuel source.” Joseph’s gaze settled on Oliver. “Perhaps you could find transportation into the city.”

  My demon nodded, a hint of a smile on his lips, and strode off toward the Egyptian and his donkey.

  “And I,” I said, holding out my wounded arm for Allison, “will let you bind this cut. It stings like the dickens, and the flies simply will not leave me alone.”

  Once my arm was cleaned and bound up, there was only one thing more I wished to do before leaving the airship. One person I wished to see.

  Because now that my magic had worn off, and we were all so happy to be alive—and now that I had almost lost him—I was ready to say what needed saying. Now was the right moment for me. Finally.

  I found Daniel in the engine. Half the floorboards had been ripped out and tossed to one side, and his blond head was hunkered over a vast array of valves, tubes, and gears.

  I knelt at the edge of the planks. “Daniel.”

  His head whipped up. Grease and sweat streaked across his cheeks. He looked absolutely himself.

  “Look.” I extended my right arm, now wrapped in bandages. “Old-fashioned healing at its best.”

  Slowly, his lips spread into a grin. His forehead relaxed, and his eyes crinkled. “I’m glad.” Wiping at his face, he rose to his full height—which brought his eyes level with mine.

  And the awkwardness took over. Unflinching and unafraid might work well for him, but I suddenly felt very exposed.

  So I dropped my gaze as I forced the proper words to come. “Back in the woods, you asked me why I could not promise to never save you again.”

  He swallowed. “And?”

  “And . . .” I bit my lip. This had really seemed quite
easy to say in my head. “And the reason I cannot promise is . . .”

  His face tightened as if bracing for the worst. “Yes?”

  “Because I am in love with you.” The words blasted out, and I cringed. Then, to make it all the more mortifying, I stupidly added, “Too.”

  “You’re in love with me,” he repeated. “Too.”

  “Too.”

  His face relaxed, and his eyes flicked to my lips . . . then to my eyes . . . then back to my lips. “If it’s all right with you then . . .” He moved slightly closer. “I’m going to ki—”

  A tremor shook through him.

  “Daniel?” I grabbed for him, alarmed. But the shudder subsided—and with it went all the discomfort of the moment.

  “Are you ill?” I asked.

  “I’m fine.” He exhaled through his teeth. “Just . . . just a chill. Nothing to worry about.” In a quick, easy move, he hopped up and twisted around to sit beside me. His legs hung into the open hole, and I swung my legs forward to mimic his.

  Then he took my hand and wove his fingers through mine. “Sorry if I scared you.”

  “It’s all right.” Feeling bold—and relieved it was just a chill—I traced a finger up his arm, relishing how it raised gooseflesh on his skin. “Perhaps someone is walking over your grave.”

  “Or maybe,” he said, bringing his forehead down to mine, “I just don’t like it when we split up.”

  “I can take care of myself.”

  “Don’t I know it, Empress.” He pressed a soft kiss to my forehead, and his lips murmured against my brow, “You’re the toughest girl in the world.”

  I drew back, grinning up at him. My heart banged, and my cheeks hurt. This was it. What I had wanted all along. Daniel and I acting as normal lovers do. No fights or problems in sight.

  “Eleanor?” Allison’s voice cut into the cargo hold—and right through the moment. “Are you in there? Mr. McIntosh and I are waiting.”

  Daniel’s expression darkened. His jaw muscles tensed. “I don’t trust her.”

  “She isn’t like her father,” I said softly, pushing to my feet. “Or like Clarence.”

 
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