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Strange and ever after, p.16
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       Strange and Ever After, p.16

           Susan Dennard
 
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  “Eleanor!” That was Jie, also far off and dulled. When I squinted to see beyond the mummy and the pulsing glow, I found them running toward me—but each of their steps seemed to take an eternity.

  It was as if Thutmose and I were trapped outside time—outside the earthly realm entirely.

  The mummy straightened and extended his hands. I shrank back. The sandstone walls were bathed in blue flashes from whatever it was Thutmose held. Without thinking, my fingers eased into my bodice and withdrew the ivory fist.

  “Is this what you want?” I held it out. The ivory blazed as brightly as whatever Thutmose held—and at the exact same tempo. “Is this why you came to life? Take it.”

  He did not take it. Instead the light blinked faster and flared so brightly, my eyes screwed shut.

  And like a breath held too long, magic burst from my chest—unsummoned and scalding, it poured out of me. I had to gasp to breathe, and my eyes could not squeeze tight enough against the light.

  Two long heartbeats passed until suddenly I found I could breathe again. My eyelids peeled back—the light was gone. My vision was clouded with shadows, yet I could see.

  And what I saw made my bowels turn to water.

  For the mummy knelt. Its head was bowed, and in its skeletal fingers were two curved tusks. No longer glowing with light yet undeniably offered to me.

  I stared at the ivory, each the length of my forearm. One was topped with an open hand—a flat palm that looked exactly as my own ivory fist had when I’d first seen it in Paris. The other curved piece was topped with a jagged, knobby end . . .

  As if it had lost its hand.

  I wet my lips, and, with great care, I reached out . . . and plucked the broken ivory piece. When Thutmose II did not move, I peered beyond once more—but Oliver and Jie looked no closer than they had moments before.

  Time had truly stopped.

  So with a steeling breath, I slowly brought the broken tusk to the half-clenched ivory fist. My fingers trembled, and my eyes shuttered over and over . . . until at last the pieces touched.

  A strange, slithery sensation oozed up from the ivory. It felt like I was holding a snake—scaly and frantic—that wanted freedom. But then the feeling stopped, and with it time lurched back to its normal pace.

  “Dormi!” Oliver’s voice slammed into me, and his footsteps pounded into life. Drumming loud and coming in fast. “Dormi!” Oliver was close now, Jie just behind him, and blue light blazed from my demon’s fingertips. His magic was finally working—this time he would be able to lay the mummy to rest.

  But before he could do that and before he could reach my side, I yanked the second ivory piece from Thutmose II’s hand. Then, though they hardly fit, I shoved both ivory artifacts into my boots.

  I could not say why, but for some reason I wanted no one to see these. Madame Marineaux had given me the ivory fist back in Paris, and the mummy of Thutmose II had woken up and given me the tusks. They were mine.

  I had just gotten the folds of my skirt wrapped around the ivory when Oliver and Jie reached me—and the mummy collapsed in a heap of bones and shredded cloth.

  “Eleanor.” Oliver dropped to the floor beside me. His arms flung around me, crushing my ribs in an embrace while Jie kicked at the heap of mummy bones—presumably for good measure.

  Oliver quickly jerked back and examined me. His face shone with an unearthly beauty—the result of his magic—yet his cheeks were flushed with worry.

  “What the hell happened?” Jie demanded, crouching beside us.

  “I-I don’t know,” I finally stammered out, yet before I had to offer up any pathetic explanation, Allison’s shouts echoed through the room.

  “And that,” she roared, “is why you should never mistreat a Wilcox. Or anyone, for that matter, you sniveling excuse for a man!”

  “Allison!” I shouted. Jie hauled me to my feet. “Don’t hurt him—we need his money!” Jie’s hand slid into one of my own, Oliver’s into the other, and we sprinted down the hall, toward Allison, towering over a sprawled figure.

  “Get his wallet!” Jie cried.

  “I did,” Allison yelled. “Don’t worry, I have this completely under control.” Yet her tone was anything but reassuring. There was a brutal edge to her words that sounded . . . deadly.

  Oliver and I scrambled into the entrance hall. Milton’s nose gushed blood, and his lip was cracked in two. The mace lay several feet away.

  “What did you do?” Oliver demanded, lurching toward the man. Milton was barely breathing.

  “I didn’t do it,” Allison snapped. “He was like that when I found him—the mummy must have done it.”

  My gaze darted to the mace—one side of it was covered in blood. But I didn’t say anything, for at that moment the professor’s eyes fluttered open.

  “Bitch,” he snarled. “Daughter of a whore. I won’t give your pathetic family a thing. May you all rot in—”

  Allison’s foot came up faster than I could even see. With a thud, her toes hit the professor’s temple.

  His eyes rolled back in his head.

  “Dammit, Allison.” I grabbed for her, but she skidded back. “You knocked him out!”

  “He deserved it.”

  “He may have,” Oliver said through grinding teeth, “but an unconscious man is no help to us. So unless his wallet is overflowing with money, we’re no better off than we were before.”

  “It is overflowing.” She tossed a black leather purse at Jie. Coins clanked as she caught it. “And,” Allison said, lifting her voice haughtily, “you should all be thanking me. You got exactly what you came for.” She bared her teeth in a smile. “And so did I.”

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  “Did you heal the horse?” I asked Oliver. We were nestled back in our carriage. Allison’s head was slumped over with sleep—as was Jie’s—and the darkened gate into Cairo lumbered overhead.

  “Yes,” Oliver said softly. In the shadows I could see nothing but his glowing eyes. “Did you not feel it? Or see it?”

  “I didn’t feel it,” I murmured, twisting around to glance at the horse. He trotted into the moonlight, towing us out through the gate . . . and yes, he looked fit and clean.

  I glanced back to Oliver. “Thank you.”

  His eyelids twitched, and he yanked out his flask. Then he gulped back several enormous swigs of liquor, exhaled sharply, and offered it to me. “Zabib?”

  My nose curled up. “What’s zabib?”

  “Alcohol, of course. I got it at the apothecary.”

  Something about the way he said “got” gave me pause. My mouth fell open. “You stole it, didn’t you, Oliver?”

  His only response was to return his flask to his waistcoat and lace his hands behind his head.

  “Oliver—”

  “Do. Not. Judge me,” he growled. “Not when you are just as morally decrepit as I. Neither of us would survive the final judgment. Remember that.” His eyes fluttered shut. But I knew he did not sleep. Whatever generous kindness had possessed my demon earlier, it was gone now.

  “What bothers you?” I asked once Cairo had faded away behind us. “Oliver, is something the matter? You were so happy earlier,” I pressed. “What has changed?”

  He refused to answer me . . . yet I knew he listened. “All was so good in the city. We were friends and getting along so well. For once you worked with everyone instead of turning me against—”

  “Enough.” His eyes snapped wide, glowing and furious. “Stop speaking before you say something you will regret and force me to say something I will regret.” Then he sank even farther into his seat and did not move the rest of the journey. All I had for companionship were windy silence and moonlight—though at least we made better time on our return. The newly healed horse was quick and lively.

  We reached Heliopolis in an hour and a half, and as we approached, I felt a change in the air. A heightening of my senses, as if I were entering another world. Or another time.

  The wheat fields ar
ound the ruins seemed spun from silver as they listed and swayed in the night wind. Even the crumbling walls seemed to glow from within.

  Our fuel salesman had fallen asleep beside his donkey—which had, in turn, fallen asleep beside a sycamore. I left Oliver to deal with him while Allison, Jie, and I hurried into the gondola. We found Joseph laying planks back over the engine.

  His face lit up at the sight of us—especially at the sight of Jie. “You are well?” At her nod, he smiled wide. But then his eyes settled on our evening gowns. His forehead puckered. “I do hope you did not spend our funds on dresses.”

  “Not at all,” Allison declared with a laugh. “We now have one hundred eleven American dollars, two hundred thirty-four Turkish sovereigns, ninety-seven British pounds, and four hundred twenty-one Egyptian gineih. And it is all with Mr. McIntosh now, so he may secure our fuel.”

  Joseph huffed a relieved laugh. “That is good. We were beginning to worry when it grew so late.” He picked at his bandages.

  “Oh, do stop,” Allison scolded, flurrying toward him. “You will bring infection if you continue.” She leaned in and scrutinized. “Actually, we ought to change those wrappings now. Our trip was very fruitful, and we managed to buy both fresh bandages as well as a scarificator.” She twirled around, motioning to Jie. “Come along, both of you. We shall clean you up, Mr. Boyer, and try out the new scarificator, Miss Chen.”

  She strode into the hall, and Jie tiredly followed. Before Joseph could join, though, I snagged his sleeve. “Where is Daniel?”

  “I believe he went for a walk in the ruins.” Joseph glanced at the open hatch. “He only just finished fixing the engine.”

  Good. I could find Daniel later then.

  I let Joseph, Jie, and Allison vanish into the washroom before I hurried to my cabin. Then, in a rush, I closed the door and yanked the ivory tusks from my boots. My curiosity had been eating me up since the Bulaq Museum, and now I could finally examine these artifacts. I wanted to see how the fist had fused onto the carved, flat piece. I wanted to know what an ancient pharaoh had awoken to give me.

  Moving to the porthole, I held both tusks in the moonlight.

  The tusk with the half-clenched fist—my fist on it—looked as if it had never been broken. I squinted, my eyes still adjusting to the dimness of the cabin, but a careful scrutiny showed no sign of fracture. If I had not seen the two pieces fuse together, I would never have believed they were ever separated.

  The next thing I noticed was that my ivory fist was the right hand, and the other was the left. Clearly, the two pieces were a set. The question was: a set for what?

  A yawn cracked through my jaws. I was too tired and confused to examine the artifacts properly, so I stowed them beneath my pillow for later inspection. Yet as I moved to undress, I glimpsed a figure outside, ambling along a distant wall; and as I watched, he hunkered down, craned his neck back, and stared up at the stars.

  Daniel.

  I could change into practical clothes later; right now I did not want to miss seeing him. So I hurried from the gondola and into the night. The cool air clung to my bare shoulders, my exposed collarbone, refreshing and alive.

  My skirts rustled with each step—and the sounds grew louder as I glided through the grass, dug my heels into crumbled gravel. The nearer I drew to the ruins, the more the world seemed to melt away—fade into a dream.

  For this moment—dressed in a beautiful gown, gliding through silver wheat toward the ancient remains of a temple—seemed too fantastic to be real.

  And yet it was real.

  As was Daniel when I rounded a row of broken columns and reached him. At the sound of my approach, he twisted . . . and then his eyes widened.

  “Empress,” he breathed, kicking off the wall. His feet crunched onto the rubble, yet he did not move toward me. He simply watched, looking stunned. Lost.

  So I moved to him, bold and unafraid, and stopped two paces away. The breeze ruffled through his hair, billowed through his shirt.

  “Is this real?” he asked softly. “Or am I sleeping?”

  I laughed, a soft but genuine laugh. “It’s real.”

  Ever so slowly, as if he feared the moment might break, Daniel eased closer.

  The breeze kept sweeping; the grass kept singing.

  He shook his head, almost in wonderment. “I have no idea where that dress came from, but I would say it was made for you.”

  I gave a shy smile, and happy heat warmed my face.

  He grinned back and swooped into a graceful bow. “May I have this dance?”

  “There’s no music.”

  “We don’t need music.” Narrowing the space between us, he slid one arm tentatively around my waist. When I didn’t pull away, he grew braver and tugged me close. Then his left hand gently clasped my right. “The last time we danced,” he said, “at that ball in Paris, you were bewitched. I want you to have a new memory of dancin’ with me.” He eased into a slow one-two-three, one-two-three. “And”—he briefly touched his forehead to mine—“I want to have a new memory too.”

  I could summon no worthy response. I could only shake my head and stare up at him. This had to be a dream. He still had grease streaks on his cheeks, and he smelled so very much like himself—of outdoors and machines.

  Daniel. My Daniel.

  One-two-three. He whisked me through the grass, past fallen columns, beneath wide sycamore limbs. One-two-three.

  We left the ruins behind. Spinning. Stepping. Smiling. Until at last Daniel twirled me once, my skirt swirling out, and then . . . he stopped. And the only sound was our rhythmic breaths and the wind shimmying through the grass.

  His eyes ran over my face. Then he barked a low laugh.

  “What?” I asked, unable to look away from him.

  “I can’t believe this is happening,” he said quietly. “You, lookin’ like this . . . and being with me.”

  “And standing in the middle of an Egyptian wheat field.”

  “Yeah.” He nodded slowly and wet his lips. “I never thought I would be this lucky. Not a fellow like me.”

  “A fellow like you,” I said, lifting my hands to grab his collar. “Which is what?”

  His lips curved into a half smile. “I believe you once called me a scalawag.”

  “Then I suppose it’s good I like scalawags.” I rose onto my toes and brought my lips almost to his.

  He stayed quiet. Frozen. If he spoke . . . if he breathed, our mouths would touch—and it would be over the cliff for us.

  He knew it. I knew it. Magical moments like this did not happen every day. They meant something. They changed something, and once we crossed this line, there would be no going back.

  And then his mouth moved. He spoke one word: “Yes.” Our lips grazed, our breaths mingled, and we fell utterly and completely into each other.

  Slow. Determined. Unflinching.

  Our bodies moved together, our lips feasted, and the grass around us vanished. My fingers explored the shape of him—the muscles in his back, the bones of his hips . . . the power of his thighs. And his hands roamed fiercely—hungrily—over every inch of me.

  For the minutes or hours or years we spent tumbling into each other, I shared everything I had with Daniel—my Daniel.

  And he shared back.

  But as always happened, our dream came to an end. When Joseph shouted for Daniel to get the balloon inflated, Daniel had to disentangle himself from my limbs, my skirts, my fingers. And the instant he pulled away, I wanted him back. I wanted his mouth, his hands, his strength back . . . but I understood he was needed elsewhere.

  And I understood we had our entire lives to drown in each other. We had started something—together—and there was no taking it back.

  So I gave Daniel a lingering, full kiss, and I sent him on his way. Then I lay back in the grass and stared up at the moon. I was not ready for sleep—not yet. I wanted to savor this night. Replay every moment in my head.

  For it had been perfection.


  Wind caressed me. I turned my head to the side and caught sight of the obelisk. It gleamed like a knife, and behind it, the balloon was just starting to inflate.

  I climbed to my feet, not even bothering to dust off my gown. There was no salvaging it at this point, and it had served its purpose.

  Then, in a dreamlike haze, I wandered toward the obelisk. Something about it called to me. When I reached its base, I craned my head back and stared up to its tip.

  This carved granite had stood here, inflicting awe, for thousands of years. It was ancient. As immortal as my demon.

  At the thought of Oliver, the obelisk seemed to flicker—to drift mistily before me like a beam of clouded sunlight—and I had an urge to explore the monument more closely. To trace the hieroglyphs and try to decode its secrets. . . .

  “A perfect night, huh?”

  I jolted around. Oliver stood only paces away, his yellow eyes bleary and flask in hand. He tipped back a swallow and listed to one side.

  I frowned. “You’re drunk.”

  “Yes,” he admitted. “I believe I consumed enough zabib to kill a small donkey.”

  I sniffed and turned back to the obelisk.

  Oliver stalked in closer. “I need to speak with you.”

  “Speak to me when you are sober.” I planted my hands on the cool granite and stared back to the top.

  “Or . . .” Oliver paused beside my outstretched arms. His eyes seemed silver in this light. “I will speak to you now.” His lips curled back. “There is something we need to . . . discuss.”

  “And what is that?” I asked in an indifferent tone.

  “Tomorrow, at the pyramids, I cannot find the Old Man.”

  I stiffened, then slowly dragged my hands down the smooth granite. “What,” I growled, “do you mean?”

  “You must find him.” He slipped into the space between me and the obelisk. “Remember how Jacques Girard called you pharaon?”

  “Yes.”

  “Well, I was puzzled by it. Pharaon. Pharaoh.” He licked his lips as if tasting the word. The breeze twined through his hair, brushing strands onto his forehead. Into his eyes.

 
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