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Strange and ever after, p.13
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       Strange and Ever After, p.13

           Susan Dennard
 
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  “That doesn’t make her trustworthy.” Daniel peered at me sideways. “Be careful, Empress, all right? I mean it. Fixing this engine is absolutely mindless, and I’ll have nothing to do but worry about you while you’re away.”

  “I’ll be careful. I promise.” I bobbed him a curtsy, and as I turned to go, he flashed me a fond, happy smile.

  I found Allison and Oliver waiting beside a rickety old cart filled with sticks of sugarcane and towed by two donkeys.

  Jie stood beside them, examining the sugarcane. Her face showed more animation than it had since Paris.

  Hope swelled in my chest, and I scurried toward her. “Are you coming with us into Cairo?”

  She hesitated.

  “Please?” I pressed. “When else will you get to see this city?”

  Her eyes ran over the cart, then flicked west toward the distant towers. And then to my absolute joy, her lips actually quirked up.

  “Yeah,” she said with a slight nod. “I guess I’ll go. Let me just tell Joseph.” She strode off, her head a bit higher than it had been a few minutes before; and as I watched her walk, my heart soared into my throat. Into my brain.

  She would be all right. Bit by bit, my best friend would feel like herself again, and she would be all right.

  With a happy hum, I twirled around the cart to join Allison and Oliver. Of course, my hum instantly cut off when Allison caught sight of me. “You intend to wear your trousers into the city?” she demanded.

  I scowled and hopped onto the back of the cart as Oliver slid up beside me. “I have nothing else, and Jie will also be in trousers.”

  “Miss Chen can at least pass as a boy. You”—she stared meaningfully at my chest—“cannot. You could have borrowed one of my dresses, you know.”

  I glared. “I could not possibly fit into one of your dresses, you know.”

  She didn’t argue with that—nor would she stop her complaints as she clambered onto the cart beside Oliver. Nor would she stop as she popped up her parasol.

  Not even as Jie climbed beside me and Oliver shouted for our driver to get going would Allison pause her torrent of nasty words. Indeed, her complaints regarding my person only stopped once children squealing for baksheesh chased after us—giving her a new target for her endless displeasure.

  CHAPTER NINE

  As our cart rattled from town—which, it turned out, was none other than Heliopolis, ancient city of the Greeks—Oliver happily donned the role of tour guide and began to point out various Egyptian sights. Allison fed his ego with enthusiastic questions, and soon we had seen a fountain of sweet water in which, according to Oliver, the Virgin Mary bathed her feet; a fig tree beneath which Mary rested; and then a garden supposedly planted by Cleopatra.

  “How do you know all these places?” Jie asked softly. Her eyes slid to Oliver’s face, challenging. “Is it some kind of demon knowledge?”

  Oliver paused, and for a moment he looked genuinely offended. But then he swatted the question aside with that careful nonchalance only he could manage. “Other than an ability to speak all languages, Miss Chen, I fear demons have no more special knowledge than you have. I only know these places because I have been here before.”

  I blinked, shocked that he had answered her so frankly—and even more shocked that Jie seemed to accept this answer, for with nothing more than a scrutinizing look, her posture relaxed. She settled back onto the sugarcane and laced her hands behind her head.

  Allison’s posture, on the other hand, locked up completely. “Demon?” Her voice was as squeaky as the cart’s wheels. “Pardon me, did I hear that properly? Demon?”

  My mouth bounced open dumbly, and Jie’s eyebrows lurched high. Oliver, however, simply flipped up his hand and drawled, “It is a euphemism, Miss Wilcox. For a . . .” He lowered his voice and whispered, “bastard. No father, you know.”

  Allison stiffened even more, statuesque if not for the breeze through her curls. “Oh? And since when do bastards speak all languages?”

  “That was a joke, Miss Wilcox.” Oliver gave her a look of such withering disbelief, even I thought it was all in jest. “Sarcasm,” he added. “You have heard of it, I daresay?”

  As Allison’s cheeks scorched pink, Oliver’s gold eyes met mine.

  Well played, I thought at him, wondering if he could hear my thoughts.

  His smile told me that he could.

  We continued on until Heliopolis had passed behind us and cornfields slid by. Jie pointed out flocks of white birds with black, plumed heads and long, curved beaks hovering above the fields. “What are those?” she asked, and Oliver resumed his role as tour guide.

  “Ah, that is the Sacred Ibis, Miss Chen. They once protected Egypt from a great winged serpent—or so the story goes.”

  “Wasn’t there a god with an ibis head?” Allison’s forehead scrunched up.

  “Thoth, I think.” I wasn’t sure why I knew that, yet Oliver nodded as if I were a particularly apt pupil.

  “Precisely, El.” He leaned into me with a playful nudge. “Thoth is the god of wisdom and balance. He and Anubis judge your soul in the afterlife.”

  “You speak as if they are real,” Allison said with giggle.

  He flashed her an arch smile. “And how do you know they are not, Miss Wilcox? Perhaps they speak all languages too.”

  Yet again Allison’s cheeks turned bright red. I glared at Oliver—and at Jie too when she actually snorted into her hand. Jie quickly covered her laugh with an overly interested point at a series of donkeys with buckets, and the conversation shifted to the primitive—though effective—irrigation system of Egyptian farms.

  Eventually we left the farms only to pass a modern train depot packed with people . . . and then finally we trudged beneath an enormous gate of wide stones into Cairo.

  “One of the Babs al-Cairo,” Oliver declared, pointing at the fortress-like archway above us. “From the Middle Ages. And look—over there are remnants of the Turkish city.” He motioned to a series of narrow lanes that shot off beyond the gate. Houses hung over the streets, meeting in the middle, and their elaborate lattice screens spoke of another time—a world like the one from Scheherazade’s tales.

  But I’d barely caught a glimpse of that exotic, old Cairo before our sugarcane cart carried us into a fantastically modern city. Wide boulevards were lined with hotels and theaters, while gardens and trees hid behind new buildings and gates. Cairo had an almost Parisian flair to it, and the pigeons fluttering everywhere were identical to those back home in Philadelphia. If it weren’t for the people, I might have forgotten where we were entirely.

  But there was no missing the people—there were faces of every color and type, from as white as mine to darker than Joseph’s. And the clothes! Some women wore veils, some wore Western-style dresses; some men donned turbans and fezzes, and others went exposed. Children trotted around on donkeys, and carriages raced behind horses.

  For a brief time all I could do was stare. During the quarter of an hour we clattered through Cairo, I was simply Eleanor again—and finally traveling the world.

  And the best part was that I had friends with me. There was already more color in Jie’s cheeks than I’d seen in two days. She was here, she was trying to move past what Marcus had done, and I would be at her side for each step of that journey.

  Just when I thought things in Cairo were quite exotic enough, the road split off in either direction to ring an enormous park.

  “Ezbekieh Gardens,” Oliver declared as we veered left to circle it. “A popular spot—as you can see.”

  And I could see. The pathways winding into the park teemed with people. Antiquity merchants shouted their wares beside mimosa trees, while charmers prodded at their snakes next to chrysanthemums. I had never in my life seen such vividness of color or people: jugglers and puppeteers, cucumber vendors and flower girls. Everywhere my eyes fell, I saw something new.

  At last our cart slowed before a palatial building. Four stories of elegant balconies and
awnings made it look both modern—like a Western hotel—but also classically old, like a sheikh’s palace. Patios out front were covered with cushioned wicker armchairs as well as the well-dressed and well-to-do.

  “Here we are,” Oliver declared.

  “That is Shepheard’s?” It was even more elegant than the Hotel Le Meurice. I scrambled off the cart and wiped at the dust on my pants.

  “That is Shepheard’s,” Oliver confirmed.

  “Finally,” Jie muttered. She rubbed at her head. “My scalp is getting sunburned.”

  “That is why I have a parasol,” Allison said primly.

  Jie and I exchanged arched eyebrows.

  But Allison was not yet finished. As she launched into a march for the entrance, she flashed me a mischievous grin over her shoulder. “Are you regretting your wardrobe selection yet, Eleanor?”

  “No,” I lied, scowling and brushing at my hair with my fingers. Jie only laughed, a loud, clear sound; and as she kicked off toward the entrance too, all my frustration with Allison slipped away.

  Today was becoming a good day.

  Oliver strolled up beside me, his elbow extended. “Shall I escort you, milady?”

  With a grin, I hooked my arm in his. “You’re in an unusually fine humor this afternoon, aren’t you?”

  “Hmmm.” His lips pressed into a vague, private smile, and he guided me up the front steps. “You are as well, Eleanor.”

  “Because my best friend is here, and she seems to be feeling better. But what reason is there for your happiness?”

  As he twirled us around a shoe shiner singing for baksheesh, he flashed his eyebrows. “Let us simply say, Eleanor, that on this particular day, I am very glad to be alive.” He towed me through a lattice-screened door. “Your palace awaits, milady.”

  “That is all?” I demanded. “You are simply glad to be alive?”

  “Mmm.”

  I dug my heels into the ground, trying to get him to stop. But Oliver simply slipped his arm free, wiggled his fingers mockingly, and strode ahead, cryptic and confusing.

  I hurried after him, through the entrance doors . . . but my stride instantly failed me. The hotel was even more luxurious inside. Potted narcissi and elegant leather sofas were crowded amid golden Persian rugs. The orange-sunburst tiles clicked beneath hundreds of feet, and above it all was the soft murmur of voices—primarily, I was surprised to note, speaking English.

  While sportsmen in khakis and artists toting their paintbrushes streamed by, Oliver informed Jie and Allison from several paces ahead of me that it was likely everyone in and around Shepheard’s spoke English. The hotel was a haven for Americans and British abroad.

  Allison tipped up her chin. “I daresay that will make our investigation easier then. We should start with the concierge.”

  “Yes,” Oliver said slowly. “You inquire at the front, and, uh . . . I shall do a bit of snooping elsewhere.” With his hands sliding into his pockets, he slunk off into the crowds.

  I craned my neck for sight of the concierge beyond the throngs of people. At last I found the dark-wood desk. “It’s at the far end of the room.”

  “Let me do the talking, please.” Allison ran a disgusted eye over Jie’s and my clothing. “In fact, you two ought to simply wait here.” She trotted away.

  Jie and I shared more arched eyebrows.

  Then Jie shrugged. “Well, I’m not waiting.”

  “Good. Nor am I.” With our jaws set, we moved out after Allison. Jie was especially adept at swatting people aside like they were obnoxious insects, and we soon reached the desk. Allison threw us scowls. Then, while the decidedly European concierge was subjected to the full power of Allison’s arrogance and command, Jie strolled over to a rack of newspapers nearby.

  Almost instantly, though, Jie hunched over and snatched up a paper. “Eleanor,” she called. “You’d better come look at this.” She lifted the paper as I scurried to her side. Today’s Egyptian Gazette, an English paper, read “Dead Rise in Marseille.”

  My stomach flipped, and with trembling hands, I took the page. The article stated that the Spirit-Hunters were not being blamed for the mass rising of corpses in France—thank God. Enough people had seen us battling the Dead to know which side we were on.

  “But it doesn’t say what happened to all the Dead after we left.” I glanced at Jie.

  Her forehead furrowed. “The news was probably just telegraphed in this morning. Maybe the rest of the story hasn’t reached here yet.”

  “I hope Marseille is all right.” My eyes skimmed over the article once more . . .

  Until a hand slapped the back of my neck.

  “Ouch!” I cried, whirling around.

  It was only Allison. “Sorry.” She grinned, not seeming even remotely sorry, and offered me her gloved palm—on which was the smashed form of a mosquito. “They’re everywhere.”

  I returned the Gazette to its rack, watching as Jie wriggled and scratched as if there were suddenly mosquitoes all over her.

  “We ought to pick up a tansy salve at the apothecary,” Allison declared matter-of-factly. “It will keep the tiny monsters away.”

  I nodded absently, rubbing at my neck. “Did you learn anything from the concierge?”

  Allison’s lips pruned. “Only that information on guests is completely confidential and no amount of sharp disapproval will change that blasted man’s mind . . .” She trailed off, her mouth dropping open. Then she lunged at the rack of newspapers and yanked up a flimsy paper booklet. “This is Milton! This is that rotten man who owes my family!” She thrust the booklet at Jie—then at me.

  I barely had time to see the title, The Exploits and Adventures of Rodney Milton, Greatest Egyptologist of the Century, before she had whipped open the booklet and was scanning the contents.

  “Here it is!” she exclaimed. “Saqqara. That was the excavation father invested in.” Clearing her throat, she began to read. “‘Saqqara was a well-known site that had barely been touched before the esteemed Professor Rodney Milton’”—she made a gagging face—“‘excavated the ruins in 1870. With funding from the University of Philadelphia and other donors, Milton bravely explored many pyramids at the site. During his excavations, Milton uncovered an entire necropolis, or city of the dead, where hundreds of catacombs were built to honor ancient Egyptian deities.’” Her eyes snapped to mine as she shoved the booklet into her pocket. “‘Esteemed professor,’ indeed! And how very kind of this book to lump my father under ‘other donors’! Oh, I will find this double-crossing Milton if it’s the last thing I do. And I will get that concierge to talk—”

  “Wait!” I snagged her wrist before she could slay the poor man with her words. “Perhaps Oliver has had better luck. Let’s find him first.”

  Yet as I turned to go search for him, my gaze landed on two ridiculous-looking girls marching toward the front desk. They were close in age to Allison and me, but their matching red hair and freckles indicated they were sisters.

  One was tall and lithe, the other small and plump, much like Mercy and Patience Virtue back in Philadelphia—and with quite the same airs. They stopped imperiously before the concierge.

  “We are expecting a delivery from Swan & Edgar,” said the taller, prettier of the two sisters. “When it arrives, please have it sent back.”

  “Tell them we will not be needing the dresses,” inserted the plump sister, her expression dramatic and forlorn.

  “Your names?” the concierge asked.

  “Deborah and Denise Mock.” The taller one’s face flushed with annoyance. “Surely you know us by now. We have been staying here for ages.” With a scathing glare, she spun on her heel and scurried back past us. “Come on, Denise,” she trilled.

  Denise hustled after. “Oh, I am still so overcome that Mother will not let us go to the party.”

  “Do not speak of it,” Deborah snapped. “I was looking forward to seeing the professor’s latest artifact, and now everyone will be talking of it without us.”


  “And here I was,” Denise went on dismally, “so certain that my new rose silk would catch Mr. Chaplin’s eye. . . .”

  The girls rounded an urn and slipped from earshot.

  And Allison and I exchanged wide-eyed glances—and I knew she thought as I did. It was not so long ago that we behaved like those sisters, and that dresses and bachelors had dominated our conversations too. For all that girls like the Virtue sisters enraged me, I had once been just like them.

  “Ladies.”

  Jie, Allison, and I jumped. But it was only Oliver behind us. “The professor isn’t here,” he said, sliding to my side. “But he does dine here every week, and the staff knows all about him. Today he is at the Bulaq Museum.”

  “Then let us go there,” Allison cried. “Can we afford the carriage fare?”

  “Ah, but the cost does not matter.” Oliver opened his hands apologetically. “There is a party tonight, hosted in your professor’s honor. Apparently he has discovered some wondrous artifact, and he intends to unveil it.”

  My breath hissed out, for certainly this was the same party the Mock sisters would be missing. . . .

  “A party?” Allison snarled, stamping her foot. “Esteemed professor, indeed!”

  “Can we try to get in?” Jie asked.

  “Doubtful.” Oliver’s eyebrows dipped down. “Security will be very strict. They aren’t letting anyone in without an invitation.”

  Allison ground her toe in the tiles, as if they might be Milton’s nose. “So we must wait until after this party to speak to Milton?”

  “Or we return tomorrow.”

  “We cannot wait,” I inserted. “We have to assume Marcus is on his way to Egypt right now. We have certainly gained some time from the airship, but how much? A full day is already lost because of the Hell Hounds—losing any more is too much risk.” I rubbed at my earlobe, considering our options. Giza was not so far away, so we could hire a carriage . . . though that still would require more money than we currently possessed.

  It was then, as I was frowning into space, that Jie nudged me.

 
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