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Strange and ever after, p.17
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       Strange and Ever After, p.17

           Susan Dennard
 
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  He did not seem drunk now. He seemed poised. Dominant. Demon. His legs slid into a slow, predatory gait around me.

  “You are not even male,” he murmured, his gaze roving up and down the length of me as he paced. “So why would Girard label you with such a title?”

  “I don’t know,” I said, keeping my eyes firmly ahead. I would not let Oliver take control of this moment.

  “Well, I asked Girard that question.” Oliver stalked behind me and then leaned in toward my ear. “Imagine my surprise,” he whispered, “when he said you carry an artifact. An imperial artifact that marks you as pharaoh.”

  Cold slid through me. Yet I stayed very still and kept my face blank.

  Oliver resumed his careful walk until he was back in front of me. Until his glowing eyes bored into mine. “Girard told me this artifact is an ivory hand, and funnily enough, I recalled someone else with such a hand. Someone in Paris who is now dead.”

  “If you have known so long,” I said coolly, “then why have you said nothing until now?”

  “Because you said nothing to me.” He cocked his head to one side. “I thought I would see how long before you did share—for surely you would tell me eventually. Me. Your demon. But then what should happen tonight?” His eyebrows lifted. “I watched as you received the final pieces of the artifact.” He tipped his face toward me. “Yet you still. Said. Nothing.”

  “You . . . you saw?” My mind raced back to that frozen moment when Thutmose II had knelt and offered me the ivory tusks. “How did you see? O-or know?”

  “Time might have slowed, El. My brain, my eyes—they did not.”

  “You should have said something.”

  His nostrils flared. “No, you should have said something.”

  I compressed my lips. I owed him no apology.

  He pulled back, and with a forced nonchalance, he leaned against the obelisk. “But why ruin this perfect night, hmm? You and your inventor. So happy.” He spread his hands. “It amazes me how easily you forget all the darkness surrounding you, El. How blind you are to your own corruption. Luckily, I am here to remind you. Let us see. . . .” He ticked off one finger. “First, your brother killed Miss Wilcox’s brother—among many other victims, murdered at his hands.”

  My teeth gritted as Oliver ticked off a second finger. “Then he died, and a necromancer took possession of his body.”

  My teeth gritted harder. Why could he never let me have one moment’s peace? “Stop.”

  A third and fourth finger unfurled. “That same necromancer wearing Elijah’s skin then killed your mother and compelled your best friend—”

  My hand cracked out. I slapped him. Pain lanced up my arm, and he lolled against the obelisk. Yet he did not stop speaking. “You are as blackened as Elijah now, Eleanor, and no matter how fast you run, you cannot escape what you are becom—”

  I attacked.

  It was as if a switch went off inside me. I lost all sense of who I was. I simply saw Oliver’s gloating, perfect face, and I wanted to shred it.

  My fingers grabbed at his cheeks. He spun away—but I expected it. We were connected. I knew what he would do.

  I lashed out with my leg and tripped him. He tumbled forward, tangling in my skirts, and I sprang onto his back—pummeling. Scratching. Hissing.

  His chest hit the earth. I landed on him, clutching for his neck—for the soft flesh above his pulse.

  He flipped me. In half a breath, wheat and grass streamed along the sides of my vision. I crashed onto my back. My breath punched out. Oliver pinned my arms over my head.

  I fought. I kicked.

  But my demon was strong. He held me firmly trapped.

  “What do you want?” I screeched at him, writhing. “Why do you do this?”

  “Let’s call it a final attempt to reclaim my dignity.”

  “But why do you torment me?” I fought harder. I kicked harder. “You know what shadows chase me—why can I have no happiness?”

  “Because I cannot, and I am a petty soul.”

  “What?” My fury burst out in a sigh of confusion—and the wind carried it all away.

  “I am unhappy, and I am petty.” Oliver spat into the grass, and in a careful, deliberate move, he released my arms . . . and then wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “You do not know what it is like to live completely driven by a command.”

  “You’re wrong,” I rasped, my lungs heaving for air. “I do know what . . . it feels like. I am driven every day to . . . obliterate Marcus.”

  “Exactly.” Oliver planted his hands on either side of my head and leaned down. His eyes throbbed with golden light. “You live by what moves you. I live by what moves my master. I have no drive of my own. No loyalties. And no love.”

  “Still . . . wrong.” I swallowed and wet my lips. “You have me.”

  “Do I?” he said softly. Then he rolled off me and collapsed on the grass beside me. “I do not have you at all, Eleanor, and you were right. He does know you better.”

  “Who?”

  “Your inventor.” Oliver draped his hand over his eyes. “You invite him in . . . and he invites you. I understand now. It isn’t about knowing facts or secrets. It’s about knowing where you fit. Too bad for me, I fit nowhere.” He gave a gruff laugh. “Oh, what a bitter thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes.”

  I sat up. The night sky spun, but I made myself tilt over Oliver—and I pushed his hands off his face. None of this night made sense to me, but I wanted at least to try to understand. “You are angry because I didn’t tell you about the ivory fist.”

  “Yes,” he muttered, pushing onto his elbows and bringing his face nearer. “But it is not only that. I cannot fully blame you for hiding the fist. Items of power warp the mind. Power warps the mind. I am mostly angry because I am alone. Again, after briefly glimpsing what the other side held.”

  My brow furrowed. “I do not understand. How could you feel alone when we are bound? I always sense our connection, a pulsing line of magic here.” I clutched at my stomach.

  He stared at me unwavering. “For a moment today, El, none of you saw me as a demon. You saw me as me. Yet now that we are back here, among the frightened distrust of Joseph and your inventor, I am alone once more.”

  I let my gaze roam over his inhumanly perfect face. Such beautiful lips, such an elegant jaw.

  There was truly nothing left of the Oliver from two weeks ago—and I recalled his words from a few days before. The more I’m trapped in this human body, the more I find myself wanting like a man wants. Feeling like a man feels.

  And that was when I finally began to understand it. He was lonely, and the more he felt like a man, the more his otherness grated inside. He wanted to be one of us; he never could be.

  “I don’t mean to push you away,” I said roughly. “I don’t want you to be alone.”

  “Then help me go home, El. Set me free so I may return to a world that welcomes me.”

  “But . . . but then I’ll be alone.” And then this familiar pulse of connection will be gone. Forever.

  He gave a sad shake of his head. “Remember this, El: not everyone who you invite in will wish to be there. And no matter what you might want, I will one day have to leave.”

  I blinked, and my mouth went dry. “But you won’t leave me now, right?” My voice was a whisper. “Allies . . . still?”

  He did not answer. He merely sat up all the way, his cheek brushing past mine, and glided to his feet. When he offered me his hand, I almost laughed at how much dust was on his suit. He so hated being dirty. . . .

  But I was too cold inside to laugh.

  I took his hand. Air whizzed past my ears, and suddenly I was standing . . . and only inches from him.

  “I am sorry for provoking you tonight.” He spoke in a distant voice. “It was wrong of me, El. It would seem I am just as cruel as your inventor when my feelings are hurt.”

  My lips parted to speak, but Oliver wasn’t finished. “Tomorrow we find the
Old Man. It’s so close. So close. Please live long enough for that, secrets or no.” He cupped my face with a single hand, his face so motionless that he looked carved from stone. “And for the love of eternity, please cast a dream ward tonight, all right?”

  He lowered his hand, nodded once, and then set off toward the airship’s gondola. And as he walked, the grass whispered and the balloon continued to grow. It rose and rose until Oliver was long out of sight.

  Until it had blocked out the moon and plunged my world into shadowy darkness.

  CHAPTER TWELVE

  I awoke with the gray light of dawn at my porthole and the dregs of heavy sleep trying to tow me under. The airship hummed, and I knew by the groan of wind over the gondola that we were flying once more.

  I had cast a dream ward the night before, and it had left my mind fuzzy. Confused. Then a memory flickered through my brain—one of shallow breaths and sweat. Of skin against skin and fingernails . . .

  Daniel. I sighed, rolling onto my side and squeezing my eyes shut. It hadn’t been a dream, had it?

  My eyes popped wide. Oh, it had certainly happened—as had my fight with Oliver.

  For two heartbeats I wished I could erase the memory of the fight and keep only Daniel. . . . But I couldn’t, and Oliver was right: we were so close to the Old Man. We were so close to ending this. I simply had to get through today.

  I hauled myself from bed and donned Daniel’s clothes once more—dusty, ripped, and stinking of yesterday’s trip in the city. I tucked an ivory artifact into each boot, and though it was stiff and conspicuous, should anyone look, I felt better having the pieces touch my skin. And somehow, knowing that Oliver knew of them only bolstered me more. It was one less secret to carry alone. . . .

  I crept into the hall and toward the pilothouse. Joseph stood at the steering wheel, his perfect posture outlined by the foggy light of dawn. My eyes were drawn straight ahead—to the pyramids on the dark horizon, yet as I stepped into the pilothouse, I peered from the windows to the world below. In the gray light, the mosques looked like Gothic towers, and they cloaked the narrow roads in shadows. Yet even at this hour people moved about, clogging the streets with a thousand hues.

  Joseph glanced back at me. “Good. You are awake. We will be at the pyramids in mere minutes, and I must know where to land.”

  “Oh.” Tugging at my earlobe, I moved to stand beside him. “I, uh, don’t precisely know—”

  “Good morning, Empress.” Daniel’s voice cut into the room, and when I spun around, I found him carrying a mug of steaming coffee—and a plate of buttered bread. With an earnest grin, he offered them to me. “Breakfast.”

  A happy lump formed in my throat, and I slowly wrapped my fingers around the warm mug. The coffee smelled divine. “Thank you, Daniel.” My eyes flicked to his. “Truly—this means a lot.”

  “It’s just breakfast,” he mumbled. He scratched at his stubbly jaw, and then, with aching slowness, he leaned his lips to my forehead . . .

  Only to pause. His gaze dropped back to mine. “Er, is that all right?”

  For some reason the coffee and bread trembled in my hands. “Always,” I whispered.

  His lips twisted up, and then he pressed a gentle kiss to my brow.

  “Really, Eleanor,” Allison declared shrilly, striding into the room in a rustle of skirts. “You realize you have spectators?”

  I stiffened, and Daniel scowled. But Allison had already strutted past.

  I drew away from Daniel, ignoring the disappointed droop in his shoulders. Allison was right—we had spectators, and now really was not the time for romance. So with an energetic interest in the landscape, I set to eating my bread and watching the muddy Nile slide beneath us. The plateau and the three pointed structures rose up from a vast ocean of sand. So silent and lonely after the farms and bustle of the city. There was no sound in that arid world. No movement. Only the hazy light of dawn.

  Soon we floated over a tree-lined path with tiny figures on the road. At the end of the path, where the complex of ruins began, I glimpsed a man and his donkey. . . .

  My mouth fell open. The man was no larger than a single stone in the pyramid. These monuments were bigger than I ever could have guessed—larger than seemed possible. And the Great Pyramid—the biggest pyramid of all—surprised me most. Not only did our airship float as high as its peak, but our egg-shaped shadow wasn’t even a twentieth of its size.

  “What is it?” Daniel asked, moving to my side and sipping his own coffee. “See any sign of where we should land?”

  “Uh . . .” I pressed my fingers to my lips and examined the pyramids. We were closing in fast now, and what had seemed to be only three pyramids were in fact nine. And the tawny limestone looked like bricks of gold in the dawn glow—misty and rich against the receding gray skies beyond—while the eroded head of the Sphinx poked up from the sand. She seemed almost . . . longing, as if staring at the same view for thousands of years was beginning to wear away at her soul.

  I looked back to Daniel. He gazed upon the Great Pyramid, his face a mask of reverence. “You know,” he said slowly, “the first time I ever went down the Mississippi, I thought the highest point in the world was a bluff in Missouri. It still stands out in my mind, Empress.” His gaze darted to me—then right back to the Great Pyramid. “I thought that cliff was the biggest thing I’d ever seen. All the trees at the top looked so tiny. . . . But this pyramid? It makes that Missouri bluff look like a sand castle.”

  I smiled at him, but pink burned onto his cheeks. “I reckon I’m just showin’ my ignorance.”

  “Pshaw.” I nudged him with my elbow, but when I opened my mouth to declare him absurd, Joseph called out, “Eleanor? I really must know where to land.”

  He, Daniel, and Allison all turned expectant eyes to me.

  Oliver? I called mentally, thinking he might be able to hear my thoughts as I could sometimes hear his. Where do we go?

  Three long breaths passed, and Oliver did not respond. No thought in my head, no hint of emotion over our bond.

  My demon had cut me off, and with that realization, a spark of anger ignited in my shoulders. For all his threats and fickleness, I knew Oliver could not leave me until I broke his bond. So let him have another temper tantrum.

  Hoping for inspiration, I flung a final look at the colossal, jagged pyramids and rocky plateau.

  “Well,” I began, cringing, “the truth of the matter is, I do not know where . . .” My words died on my tongue. The first orange beam of light was now spraying over the limestone. It lit up the pyramids as if they were sun’s rays. So bright. So golden.

  And movement was flashing before the Sphinx’s head.

  Hurry.

  The word burst in my brain, as glaring and sharp as the sunrise.

  “Spyglass,” I croaked, lurching close to the window. Daniel pushed it to me, and I locked my magnified gaze on the Sphinx’s eroded head just as a scruffy jackal trotted before her patient face, plopped down, and looked directly at me.

  Hurry, he repeated, his yellow eyes trapping mine. You must hurry.

  “Go to the Sphinx,” I said.

  “How do you know?” Daniel asked.

  “I just . . . do,” I murmured. No one would believe me about the jackal anyway. “Trust me, Daniel; we need to land beside the Sphinx.”

  We split up. Joseph, Oliver, Daniel, and I would find the Old Man; Jie and Allison would remain with the airship.

  Jie was opposed to it—of course—but Joseph insisted someone ought to guard our things. And since Allison was adamantly unwilling to searching for the Old Man (Thutmose II and the Hell Hounds had sated her appetite for the Dead), that meant Jie had to be the one to stay back as well. She needed her hourly bleeding, and as Allison pointed out, what if more excitement should happen (like last night!) and we all forgot?

  As these discussions were rambling on heatedly beside the airship’s swaying ladder—which sent crisscrossed shadows over the Sphinx’s face—I waited anxio
usly nearby. The morning air was quickly warming, and sand gritted in my eyes, coated my skin and my lips. I barely noticed. I simply hopped from foot to foot and stared up at the Great Pyramid. It towered above me like enormous steps. Up, up, until it blocked out the entire morning sky—and all the other pyramids too. Overwhelming, dominant, ancient.

  And slowly ascending, one springing leap at a time, was the jackal.

  For half a breath, awe and fear cramped together inside me. We were here—in Egypt at the pyramids. We were about to find the Old Man and learn the secrets of the Black Pullet. It was what Elijah had wanted. What Marcus wanted . . . and now it was what we wanted too.

  And I was trusting a spirit jackal to guide me.

  “You see something, don’t you?” Oliver’s voice snaked into my ear, almost carried off by the gusting wind.

  I tensed. There was nothing cruel in his tone . . . yet there was nothing gentle either. His voice was empty—as was his expression when I glanced at him sideways.

  “Yes,” I admitted. If anyone would believe me, it was Oliver. “I see a jackal. We are supposed to be following him.”

  “You seem unimpressed by this jackal, so I presume you have seen him before.” Oliver spoke it as a statement, not a question.

  I grimaced. It was one more secret I had withheld from my demon.

  But he did not seem angry—no flash of his eyes. No sharp words. As he swatted his hair from his eyes, he said, “He is not a jackal, El. He is the jackal, and it is best we not keep him waiting.”

  “You know him?”

  Oliver gave a grunt of acknowledgment. “There are many creatures in the spirit realm. The jackal is a messenger of sorts . . . I think. He stayed on the dock; I lived beyond. We never interacted.”

  “You are not upset I didn’t tell you about him?”

  Oliver settled a flat-eyed gaze on me. “A bit. It would have at least explained how you crossed the curtain despite your dream ward. But . . .” He chewed his lip for a moment. “I am less upset over the jackal and more worried about him. Ivory artifacts and spiritual messengers open many questions. Let us hope we find the answers here.” He dipped his head toward the Great Pyramid before launching into long strides, his feet kicking up sand as he aimed for the first jagged level of enormous stones.

 
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