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Strange and ever after, p.14
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       Strange and Ever After, p.14

           Susan Dennard
 
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“Look.” She dipped her head at two well-dressed gentlemen with large boxes striding toward the concierge. The boxes read SWAN & EDGAR.

  “Brilliant,” I whispered, flashing Jie a bright grin. Then I snatched at Allison’s arm. “Go tell them you’re Deborah Mock.” At her oblivious stare, I pointed at the dressmakers. “Tell them you’re Debbie and those gowns are yours.”

  Understanding brightened her eyes, and without wasting a heartbeat, she puffed out her chest and swept toward the men.

  “Hullo,” she sang, “I am Deborah Mock, and if I am not mistaken, these gowns belong to me. Thank you so very much for delivering them.”

  Allison managed to get the dresses in mere moments, so we promptly aimed for the hotel’s washroom. Professor Milton’s party would begin at six—and it was already a quarter until.

  “And we still gotta find a Western apothecary,” Jie reminded us as we strutted around a row of potted violets. Allison and I had the two dress boxes, while Jie and Oliver sauntered behind us. “If that scar . . . scarifi . . .”

  “Scarificator,” Allison inserted.

  “That,” Jie said. “If it will make these cuts hurt less—”

  “It will,” Allison chimed.

  “—then I want to get one.”

  “Eleanor and I promise to hurry,” Allison said.

  My eyebrows lifted at her.

  “What?” she demanded, stopping before an ornate door marked LADIES.

  “I am merely surprised, is all. You are quite good as a nurse.”

  “Humbug,” she scoffed—but there was no denying the pleased flush on her cheeks before she pushed into the water closet.

  I threw a backward glance at Jie and Oliver. “Stand guard?”

  Jie chuckled, as if it were stupid I even mentioned it, while Oliver gave an elegant shrug. “I always do, don’t I?”

  I blinked, briefly struck by how different he seemed. With his fitted charcoal suit (somehow always impeccably clean) and his top hat (stolen in Le Havre), he looked as he always did. . . . And yet when I’d first met him two weeks ago, he had reminded me of Elijah—young, silly Elijah.

  He did not remind me of Elijah anymore. Now Oliver seemed like a man. His own man.

  “Enjoying the view?” He smirked at me. “If you continue to stare, Eleanor, you might give me the wrong impression.”

  My cheeks warmed, and to my even greater shame, Jie snickered. I scowled and turned toward the water closet. “I do not know what you mean.”

  “No,” he murmured as I pushed through the doorway, “you never seem to.”

  Yes, there was definitely something different about my demon these days. And Jie. It was not just what Marcus had done to her—though perhaps that had triggered this shift—but she seemed . . .

  Well, she actually seemed to like Oliver. Or at the very least, she did not seem to mind him. Had it only been two days ago that she had screamed at me in the burned-out Tuileries Palace? That she had raced off to tell Joseph? And had it only been yesterday that she had hissed demon and cowered?

  The door softly clicked shut behind me, and I found myself in a washroom as ornate as the lobby. The space was open, long, and filled with comfortable wicker seating. At the back was a low counter with multiple china washbasins, and to the right were several doors leading to individual toilet closets.

  Allison laid her box on a sofa, and with my help, we had her down to her small clothes in mere minutes. Then as she donned Deborah’s gown, I stripped free of Daniel’s trousers . . .

  And thought of my inventor, back at the airship. He would be slaving over the broken engine, while Joseph fretted over each detail. . . .

  And while Marcus drew ever closer, seeking the same Old Man my brother had sought and hoping to gain immortality and wealth from some ancient, mythical monster.

  But soon—so soon—we would give Marcus what he deserved. We would crush him, and then everything could return to normal. Or a broken version of it, at least.

  Pivoting toward Allison, my fingers moved to my trousers’ pocket to check on the ivory fist. . . .

  And I froze, my jaw sagging.

  For Allison was dressed in Deborah Mock’s gown, and though it was not yet laced up and was at least four inches too long, it was stunning. The jade muslin was decorated with sky-blue flowers sewn along the shoulder-baring collar—and larger flowers were fastened onto the bustle.

  “Heavens,” I breathed, dropping the trousers on a chair and approaching her. “Jade is most certainly your shade, Allison.” I was so used to seeing her in mourning, I had quite forgotten how well she looked in such colors. . . . And I realized with an inward frown that this was likely the first time she had donned anything but black since Clarence’s death.

  A smile tugged at her lips, and she ran a hand over the skirts. “It is nice. These Mock sisters certainly have taste. . . . Now your turn.”

  “So that I may look the fool next to you?” I grinned, and Allison blinked.

  “Whatever do you mean?”

  “Do not pretend you aren’t prettier than I.” Still smiling, I moved to my dress box and towed off the top.

  A rose silk gown with lace trim met my eyes.

  “Prettier than you,” Allison repeated softly, and I glanced at her in surprise. Her forehead was creased. “Do you really think that?”

  “It’s the truth, isn’t it?” I shrugged helplessly. “In all honesty, Allison, I have always envied your beauty. And all your friends. And,” I continued, since clearly I was in a confessing mood, “your wealth.”

  She shook her head, her frown only deepening. “People were not really my friends, Eleanor. It was all because of Father. Mercy, Patience—I spent all my time with them, but they were never like . . . like your friendship. With Miss Chen.” She barked a harsh laugh. “And here I was, always envying you. All the clever things you would say. How you could always make people laugh. And how you never seemed to care what they thought of you.”

  “But . . . I did care.” I tilted my head to the side, now eyeing her with surprise. “I cared very much and merely pretended not to.”

  For several long moments she watched me, her expression inscrutable. Something was happening here. A shift in a wind I had not even noticed was there. But then a huge grin suddenly split her face.

  And she laughed. A full, rippling sound that sent her hands to her lips and her shoulders bouncing. “Can . . . you . . . believe it? We’re in the middle of Egypt, wearing stolen dresses and discussing how much we envy each other! Can you conjure a more absurd situation? And,” she went on, snorting, “we’re about to sneak into a party so I may demand money! It is like something out of a novel.”

  I cracked a wry smile. “I suppose you are a Portia with no sense of mercy now.”

  Her laughter paused . . . then she doubled over even harder. “I . . . forgot . . . you called me that! I had to ask Clarence what it was, you know—and of course it was Shakespeare. Heavens, it feels like ages ago.”

  Because it was, I thought. It was a lifetime ago.

  Bang, bang, bang! A fist hammered on the door. Allison and I flinched.

  “Eleanor!” Oliver called. “What is taking so long? It is past six o’clock now, and we still must find an apothecary.”

  Allison and I exchanged winces. Then we dived into action—I laced up Allison’s gown, and she helped me don mine. The gowns did not fit well, but they were at least manageable. Though it did take a great deal of sucking in and grinding my teeth before I eventually managed to squeeze into the rose silk. It was harder than it should have been thanks to my corset-less waist, but soon enough, Allison had all the buttons fastened.

  Of course, the gown was at least three inches too short, and though it made walking easier, it revealed my worn boots. But even more obvious was the huge bandage wrapped around my forearm.

  “Maybe . . . no one will notice?” Allison said, but from the way her face screwed up as we pushed back into the lobby, I knew she was lying.

  “Fi
nally,” Jie groused as Oliver gave Allison and me a once-over. His eyes caught on my bandage . . . then drifted down to my boots.

  “Nice ankles, El.” He bared a rakish grin that left Allison blushing and Jie smirking. Then, after gathering up the dress boxes that now held our old clothes, he loped off toward the street. Allison, Jie, and I hurried after.

  “I managed to secure a carriage,” he said as we scampered down the steps and back into the seething array of beggars, donkeys, and street vendors. “I promised the fellow payment after our party—as well as loads of baksheesh.” He turned a high eyebrow on Allison. “Let us hope your professor pays up.”

  Allison’s teeth clenched—as did mine. When we had left Paris, the last thing on my mind had been money. After facing armies of Dead, I never would have guessed our largest obstacle to be funding.

  “Here we are.” Oliver motioned to a dingy, dangerous-looking carriage pulled by a pathetic horse covered in open wounds and festering sores.

  My stomach rebelled. And when I saw that one of the horse’s legs was lame, I flung a furious glance at the driver. I knew this was simply a cultural disparity—this horse was a work animal and nothing more—yet I could not accept it.

  Jie winced as well when she noticed the horse’s sores, and even Allison wrinkled her nose.

  So I turned desperately to Oliver as Jie and Allison ascended into the carriage.

  “Can you help the horse?” I whispered. “Heal it or something?”

  “How?” he asked without looking at me. “Recall: Mr. McIntosh is nothing more than a regular person with regular powers. Now, up we go.” His hands clasped my waist, and with surprising strength, he hefted me into the carriage. Then he hopped up beside me, hunkered down, and ordered our driver onward.

  But not before his yellow eyes met mine and a thought flickered through my brain—his thought.

  Command me once the party begins and Miss Wilcox is out of sight. Then I will heal the horse.

  I was amazed. Delighted, even. My demon really was in quite an unusual mood. A generous one, and though I could not understand why, I was grateful for it.

  And I could not deny that I liked seeing Oliver happy. It made my heart warm—even more so because my best friend was at my side and an Egyptian sun beamed down upon us.

  So as the carriage rattled to a start, I shifted my body toward him, and I smiled.

  And Oliver smiled his beautiful smile back.

  CHAPTER TEN

  We found a British apothecary easily enough and spent all our remaining money on bandages, a scarificator, and bloodletting cups. Allison was like a child in a toy shop, and had I not forcibly yanked her out, she easily could have spent ten hours examining the various scarificators and newest salves.

  The sun was just setting when we headed back out through Cairo, aiming west. I was able to forget the poor horse’s plight—and how blasted uncomfortable my dress was—for the closer we came to the Nile, the thicker traffic grew.

  “Why are there so many people out?” I leaned over the carriage’s side—and was almost clipped by a camel. “The streets were busy earlier, but this is madness!”

  “The adhan will begin soon,” Oliver answered. At our vacant-eyed stares, he explained, “The muezzin call.” We continued to stare dumbly. “Egads, ladies, the call to prayer in Islam. It happens five times a day, and sunset is one of those times. A man will stand atop a minaret and shout ‘God is greatest’ so that our faithful Muslim friends may hurry to the mosques to pray.”

  “Oh,” I mumbled, watching the passersby with new interest. I could rattle off Shakespeare as if the words were engraved in my skull, but when it came to the world’s religions, I was woefully ignorant. Just as we clattered onto a bridge flanked by two huge lions that ran over the Nile, the adhan did begin . . . and my heart lifted.

  “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar,” shouted muezzins all over the city—hundreds of them, and everyone around us picked up their paces.

  I caught Allison’s eyes. She grinned. Then Jie smiled that smug, catlike smile of hers, and I let my own lips curve up. I could briefly release some of the darkness that always clotted my lungs. I could let it float away on the Nile breeze and pretend I was simply me again.

  It took our driver a solid half hour to navigate what was actually a short distance to the Bulaq district—and if we thought the crowds were bad, it was nothing compared to the droves of bugs coming out for twilight feasting.

  “Can’t you make them go away?” Allison cried, smacking a mosquito off her wrist. “With your magic or something.” She threw me a pleading glance.

  I gulped. At the word magic, the old hunger had awakened in my stomach. Instinctively, I reached for my pocket . . . but of course I wore a dress now. I had slipped the ivory fist into my bodice, so I could hardly grope for it.

  Allison slapped a fly on her neck. “We will be eaten alive before we even reach the party!”

  She was right, of course. Small, itchy bumps speckled our flesh by the time we pulled to a stop before the Bulaq Museum, and Jie’s fingers seemed permanently fastened to her scalp with all the scratching.

  “Well,” Oliver grumbled, eyeing Allison and me with disapproval as we disembarked from the carriage toward a building of yellow and umber sandstone, “you certainly will not be the cleanest girls at the party, but hopefully the quality of the gowns and the prettiness of your faces”—he pinched my cheeks with an almost vicious force—“will more than compensate.”

  “Ouch.” I slapped his hand away, my cheeks stinging . . . but the pain almost instantly vanished from thought. For I now had a full view of the museum.

  It was guarded by two enormous statues, both wearing the typical ancient Egyptian headdress and garb. Spotlights shone brightly on them, illuminating their weathered edges and severe expressions. A breeze whispered through palm trees and then over us, drying sweat and soothing bug bites.

  Several guests milled about outside—suited men speaking in low voices or Egyptians tending carriages and horses—but the bulk of sounds came from within the museum.

  I turned to Jie. “Will you be all right waiting here with him?” I glanced at Oliver.

  “Yeah,” she said simply, following my gaze. Then an almost wicked smile spread over her lips. “In fact, I have a few questions to ask Mr. McIntosh. Now seems a good time, when it’s just the two of us.”

  I frowned, not liking the sound of that, but then Allison shot me a panicked look. “We are late. Everyone will see us arriving, and we look hideous, Eleanor.” As if to prove the point, she gave an indelicate scratch at a mosquito bite on her collarbone.

  “You look lovely,” I said in what I hoped was a soothing tone. And for good measure, I lifted one heel—showing my dusty boots and a thoroughly indecent amount of calf. “At least your gown covers your ankles.”

  “Hush,” Oliver groaned, stepping behind me. “Did you not hear me say that you look perfect? You do”—he glowered at me—“and you need to act like it. Otherwise that fellow checking invitations is never going to believe you’re the Mock sisters.” He pointed to a suited man directly beside the wide entrance doors.

  “Right.” I hooked my arm in Allison’s. “We must pretend this is nothing more than the Continental Hotel back in Philadelphia, and those men are simply porters.”

  She drew in a fortifying breath and set her jaw. “Yes. I do believe we can manage that. Come on.” She set off, her arm slipping from mine.

  Yet before I could follow, Jie punched me lightly. “When you get inside, find a good hiding place. And all the exits—just in case things go bad, yeah?”

  I nodded. “Right. A hiding place.”

  “Come on,” Allison screeched at me, so I flashed a final smile at Jie and scurried off. My skirts rattled like palm fronds, yet I had only gone ten paces when a strange twist began in my stomach. I paused and glanced back, thinking it must be Oliver.

  He leaned against our carriage, Jie beside him, and at my stare he lifted an eyebrow. “
Heal the horse,” I whispered. “Sum veritas.”

  He bowed his head, giving me a lazy smile, and I resumed my stride.

  But the twisting began again, and with each step after, it grew more intense. Clearly it was not coming from Oliver . . . so from where? My forehead crinkled as I focused on the sensation. It was not unpleasant. In fact, it was quite the contrary. It was . . . exciting. As if I anticipated something.

  I towed all thoughts of it aside, for I had caught up to Allison before the museum doors.

  “Invitations?” said the mustached doorman. His suit was too large and his accent too thick.

  Allison twittered. “We seem to have forgotten them.”

  “Then I cannot let you in.” He bowed. “I am sorry.”

  “What do you mean cannot let us in?” Allison gave a derisive snort. “I am Deborah Mock of the Mocks, and Professor Milton is expecting me.”

  The doorman cringed.

  “And I am Denise Mock,” I crowed, cocking my chin high with a bit too much drama. “Surely you recognize us now.”

  But the doorman only looked more wretched, and it was clear he did not want to say what came next. “I really cannot let you enter without an invitation—”

  “Of course you can!” Allison interrupted. Then she snapped toward me. “This is all your fault. You left our invitations at home.”

  “Me?” I squealed, poking her a bit too sharply in the ribs—though it did make her mask of annoyance all the more genuine. “You were the one who was supposed to bring them.”

  The doorman coughed. “Please, Mesdemoiselles, you are making a scene—”

  “This is not a scene!” I screeched, wheeling on him. “You shall see a scene very soon, indeed.”

  “Do not make me call the guards.” The doorman looked truly ill at the thought.

  “Let them pass,” said a new voice. Allison and I spun around to find Oliver marching toward us. Arabic poured from his mouth, and his face was so red, even I flinched. His arms went up, down, and out. Then as if deciding the man was too stupid to comprehend Arabic, he shifted into French.

 
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