Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh: Chapter One

November 1907

Chapter One: The Wretched Reticule

Even with the windows closed, the sand still managed to creep into the railway car and find its way into the most inconvenient places. I shifted uncomfortably on the seat, blew the dust off the pages of my journal, and focused on the list I was composing. Seeing things laid out in black and white often helps me think better.

Things To Do In Egypt

1. Avoid the nefarious Serpents of Chaos, a secret organization determined to obtain any and all cursed artifacts and use them for their own ill gain.

2. Locate Major Harriman Grindle, my contact at the Luxor branch of the Brotherhood of the Chosen Keepers, the honorable group of men dedicated to stopping the Serpents of Chaos.

3. Help Mother find the Temple of Thutmose III. While my research had indicated there might be such a temple, I had overstated the case in order to convince Mother to return to Egypt so I could—

4. Return two powerful artifacts, the Orb of Ra and the Emerald Tablet to the wedjadeen, a shadowy organization than not even the Brotherhood of Chosen Keepers had heard of. According to the Egyptian magician Awi Bubu, they are charged by the Egyptian gods to guard and protect the same ancient, powerful artifacts as the Brotherhood of the Chosen Keepers are.

5. Convince the wedjadeen that I should not be punished for having their powerful artifacts in my possession.

6. Also convince them that since my friend Awi Bubu had sent me to return these powerful artifacts to them, he should be forgiven for his past mistakes that had caused him to be expelled from their ranks.

7. Learn the circumstances of my birth. Awi Bubu seemed to think my peculiar talents of being able to detect ancient magic and curses had been given to me for a reason.

I studied the list. It didn’t look quite long enough, frankly. A mere seven things shouldn’t feel as if the weight of the known world were resting on my shoulders, should it?

A low, unhappy warble emerged from the basket on the seat next to me. I glanced anxiously at Mother, who raised a warning eyebrow. Oh, yes.

8. Keep Isis out from under Mother’s feet at all times.

I slipped my pencil in my pocket, then put my fingers through one of the slats in the basket to reassure her that I was still there. When I felt the feather light touch of her soft, warm nose, I inched my fingers around to scratch behind her ears. That seemed to appease her somewhat. She didn’t quite purr, but she almost purred, and that was victory enough for me.

Mother had been furious when she’d learned I’d snuck Isis along on the trip. Luckily, we’d been far out to sea and it was too late to turn back. I know it was wrong of me to smuggle her along, and not only because it annoyed Mother (although I do try to avoid needlessly annoying my parents whenever possible. There are enough times when I simply have no choice.) The reason it was wrong had more to do with Isis herself. She wasn’t fond of cooped up spaces, nor was she fond of long journeys on the ocean. I knew she would be miserable until we arrived in Egypt. But I also knew I would be even more miserable without her company for months and months. Besides, she had some . . . power, some special quality that had a strange effect on some people that might come in handy on this trip.

If I was going to be thousands of miles from everyone I knew and needed to tackle dangerous duties on my own, then it seemed to me I ought to have at least one ally I could count on. Honestly! Mother was lucky I hadn’t tried to smuggle Sticky Will along on the trip. Although, it was difficult enough smuggling a cat—smuggling a twelve-year-old street urchin with a talent for picking pockets would have been impossible.

With an ear-splitting screech of metal and a final, sickly chug, the train pulled into the Cairo station. I had to brace my feet to keep from pitching onto the floor and I flung my arm out to keep Isis and her basket from tumbling off the seat. Across from me, Mother rocked backwards as the train braked, then pitched forward, her head nearly landing in my lap.

She quickly sat back up and adjusted her hat. “We’re here!” she said cheerfully.

“We’re here,” I agreed, carefully setting the basket to rights.

“Collect your things, dear. We’ll be de-boarding in a few minutes.”

“Yes, Mother.” I took my hand from Isis’s basket, annoyed to find that the silken cords to my reticule had gotten wrapped around my wrist again. I must say, fashion is a mystery to me. How on earth can ladies stroll around with a beastly reticule wrapped around their wrists? The cords get twisted and tangled, then grow so tight it feels as if it has cut off all the circulation to one’s hand. Not only that, but the horrid thing bumps and thumps against one’s leg with every step. Sighing with annoyance, I jerked at the silken cords, trying to get the blood flowing back into my hand.

“What are you doing?” Mother asked.

“Straightening this wretched thing out,” I muttered, watching the reticule spin round and round as I untwisted the cords.

“I thought you loved that little purse! If I remember correctly, you begged and begged for me to buy it for you.”

I bit back a sigh of frustration. Why do grownups always remember the things you wish they wouldn’t? “Well, that was before I knew what a lot of bother they’d be.” What I’d really wanted was a muff, but even in November, Egypt was too hot for one. It would have made a wonderful hiding place, though. One where I could have kept my hands safely wrapped around the—

“Here, give me that.” Mother reached for the purse.

“No!” I jerked it out of her reach. “I need to practice, don’t you think? I’ll be a grownup before you know it, and I’ll need to know how to carry a reticule properly. If I don’t learn now, when will I?”

Mother stared at me for a long moment, then shook her head. “Your grandmother is right. You are a peculiar child.”

Her words stung me to the quick. Peculiar? Peculiar!

Seeing the stricken look on my face, she gave me a smile she meant to be comforting. “Don’t worry, dear. We all go through peculiar stages, but we grow out of them.”

It did not make me feel one whit better that she was hoping—counting on the fact—that I would grow into someone different from who I was.

All the joy and promise of this trip evaporated. One part of me longed to explain the true reason I acted so peculiar, but I didn’t think the true reasons would make her feel any better. In fact, she would most likely ship me off to a sanatorium if she knew that I spent most of my time removing black magic and ancient curses from rare and powerful artifacts in the Museum of Legends and Antiquities that my parents oversaw back in London. Or that I spent quite a lot of energy avoiding secret societies that would love to get their hands on those artifacts and use them for their own evil ends. No, I was fairly certain Mother wouldn’t consider that any less peculiar.

Completely unaware of the turmoil inside me, Mother stood and brushed off her skirts. “Get your things, dear.”

Another low-throated warble emerged from the basket on the bench next to me. “Isis doesn’t like being called a thing,” I pointed out.

Mother stopped her grooming and speared me with one of her stern looks. “Since Isis was not invited on this trip, I do not particularly care what she likes and does not like. Do not try my patience, Theo. The travel and the delays have done that well enough. Now come along.”

Feeling that perhaps coming to Egypt with Mother was a very bad idea, I grabbed my traveling satchel in one hand, Isis’s basket in the other, and pushed to my feet.

“Your hat,” she reminded me, motioning to the pith helmet on the seat cushion. Bother. I set down my satchel, plunked the hat on my head, picked up the satchel again, then followed Mother out of our compartment and thump-bumped my way down the narrow, cramped aisle.

In the station, faint traces of heka and ancient magic hung in the air, mingling with the soot and steam from the train. I sneezed, then gingerly picked my way down the steps to the platform, the small weight in my reticule heavy against my leg. The Orb of Ra within it was a constant reminder of why I was here and the promise I made to an Awi Bubu when he was on his deathbed. (Or so I had believed at the time, otherwise I would never have made it.) However, while he hadn’t died from the injuries he’d sustained, he hadn’t recovered enough that he could travel to Egypt himself.

Thinking of the Serpents of Chaos made me uneasy. My shoulders twitched, itching for the safety of our hotel room. “Is Nabir meeting us?” I looked around the crowded station, hoping to spot the familiar face of Mother’s dragoman.

“Not this time,” she said. “He’s in Luxor putting together a team for the dig. We’ll find a porter and obtain transportation to the hotel ourselves.”

Easier said than done, I thought, trying to push through a knot of people milling about the station. In truth, it was more of a mob. And while I remembered Cairo station being busy, I didn’t remember it being this busy. “What are all these people doing here?” I asked over the rising hum of the voices. “Is it a holiday of some sort?”

“I’m not sure, dear,” Mother called over her shoulder, “but stay close so we don’t get separated.”

I squeezed around a group of men, all wearing long white robes and arguing forcefully with each other. With a stab of surprise, I found myself longing for Father. He was quite efficient at coaxing people to give way. Of course, that was due to the cane he wielded with such devastating effectiveness. Even so, I had not expected to miss his solid presence quite so much. Unfortunately, the museum’s current exhibit had become so popular that the board of directors wouldn’t let him leave.

Unfamiliar foreign voices filled the station, sounding angry and frustrated. Mother gripped her satchel more firmly and glanced back to be certain I was still right behind her. I was glad to see that, peculiar or not, she didn’t want to lose me in this crush. I gave her a smile of reassurance, then turned my attention back to looking for a break in the crowd through which we could slip.

That was when I noticed an odd, spindly man fighting his way through the throng. His eyes darted over the heads of the jostling crowd, searching for someone. Thoughts of the Serpents of Chaos immediately filled my head. I glanced over at Mother to see if she had noticed—or recognized—the fellow, but she seemed reluctant to take her eyes from the baggage car, afraid our trunks would disappear from sight if she so much as looked away.

The man was quite tall, and long-limbed. His hair was so fair as to be nearly white, as if all the color had been washed out of it. There was something a bit twitchy about him that made me wonder if his bones didn’t quite fit in his skin.

His searching gaze landed on Mother and me, and a determined gleam appeared in his eyes, like someone zeroing in on a target.

Just as I was trying to decide if Mother and I could give him the slip, he gave a vigorous shove past one last barrier of bodies and popped through the crowd like a cork out of a bottle to land neatly in front of us.

His pale blue eyes blinked rapidly as he tugged his jacket back into place and straightened his tie. I saw that there was a bit of hair on his upper lip that wanted to be a mustache when it grew up. He sent a quick, unreadable glance my way then bowed to Mother. “Mrs. Throckmorton?” he asked.

I gripped the satchel and reticule more tightly.

“Yes?” Mother asked with chilly politeness.

“I am Jonathan Bing of the Antiquities Service. I’ve been sent to escort you to your appointment. When I stopped by the hotel to collect you, they said you had not yet arrived. I thought I’d best come check on your train since this business”—he nodded his head toward the crowd of Egyptians—“was going on today.”

Mother visibly relaxed. “And we are so very glad that you did.”

“What exactly is this business?” I asked looking back at the edges of the throng where a lone man stood on a crate, addressing the others.

His gaze followed my own and his nose wrinkled faintly in distaste. “The Nationalist Party. They’re having a demonstration to protest the British presence here in Egypt.”

“Yes well, they are taking up rather a lot of room,” Mother said as someone jostled her and sent her stumbling into me. “Would you be so kind as to take this?” Mother thrust her small carry-aboard suitcase at him, then grabbed my elbow in a firm grip.

Some of the tension left me, and suddenly, the teeming masses of humanity seemed less threatening.

Taking Mother’s suitcase, Mr. Bing began using it rather like a battering ram and forced a path through the scrum. We followed gratefully in his wake.

At first, Bing had little success in getting through the solid wall of bodies. I was quickly surrounded by black robes and turbaned heads. If it hadn’t been for Mother’s solid hold on me, I’m afraid I might have panicked.

The man on the crate let loose with a new torrent of words, and the crowd erupted into cheers and surged forward, as if to embrace him on their wave of joy. The three of us were carried along with them. “What is he saying?” I asked Bing, nearly shouting to be heard.

“Nothing good,” he shouted back. I scowled. He was my least favorite sort of grownup—the kind that never told children anything.

A tall, bearded man bumped into me and knocked my elbow out of Mother’s grip. Within seconds, the sea of strangers closed in around me and I couldn’t see any sign of Mother’s dusty rose traveling suit or the tailored lines of Bing’s morning coat. A firm hand grabbed my arm. Chaos, I thought, with a hot bubble of panic. I bit back a scream and tried to jerk away.

The grip tightened painfully. “This way!” Bing shouted. Bing, I told myself. It was only Mr. Bing. I allowed him to tug me through the wall of bodies until finally we were on the other side. I spotted Mother waiting for us and started to head for her, but a squeeze on my shoulder held me back.

“What?” I asked Mr. Bing.

“Wigmere,” he said out of the side of his mouth. “Wigmere sent me.”

I stumbled to a stop when he uttered the name of the head of the Chosen Keepers. “Really?” I asked.

He nodded and turned his attention back to Mother, waving to her to let her know he’d found me. For the first time since stepping off the train, I relaxed. I should have known Wigmere would have arranged for some sort of help here in Cairo. Especially with the burden I was carrying.

* * *

Mr. Bing deposited me next to Mother, then braved the crowd once more to oversee our luggage.

Outside the train station, the smell of old magic was stronger and mixed with the heat and the dust and something a little bit . . . gamey. I turned to find a small herd of donkeys and donkey boys waiting nearby. That was it; the smell of donkey.

Finally all of our belongings were duly collected and we loaded ourselves and our luggage into the conveyance. The driver slapped the reins and the carriage moved forward.

The streets of Cairo still looked the same as they had on my first trip. Mostly. They were lined on either side by high narrow houses with second and third stories that jutted out over the street. Windows were covered with elaborate latticework that looked like exotic lace. And the colors! Violet, mulberry, olive, peach, and crimson, with the occasional flash of silver or brass. It was as though someone had spilled a paint box in the sand. Even so, it seemed to me that the shadows were darker, deeper and more threatening than on my last visit.

I kept a careful eye on the men in the street—barefoot Egyptians in tattered cotton, Bedouin in long billowing robes, effendis in their red fez’s—looking for any sign of the Serpents of Chaos, but everyone seemed as he should.

When at last the hotel came into view, my sigh of relief was cut short when a swarm of vendors and street sellers descended upon our carriage like one of the Ten Plagues of Egypt. They pressed around on all sides, trying to sell whips, fly swatters, cork-lined hats, or locally crafted fans. One man carried an enormous stick covered with dangling shoes and nearly beaned us with it as he tried to show us his wares.

The hotel doorman—a giant, burly fellow—waded through the bodies, shooing them aside as if he were brushing crumbs from a table. He reached our carriage and cleared enough space for us to get out. Then he planted himself on one side of us and Mr. Bing took up the other as we made our way to the safety of the hotel lobby. The cool quiet was like a balm to our battered souls after the pandemonium of the morning.

Porters were sent to fetch our trunks and we were quickly shown to our rooms. Mr. Bing offered to wait downstairs while we freshened up, then escort us to the Antiquities Service.

“Don’t dawdle, Theodosia,” Mother said, when we reached our suite. “We’ve got to meet Mr. Bing in a quarter of an hour. I don’t want to keep Monsieur Maspero waiting any longer than necessary.”

“Yes, Mother,” I said, then thump-bumped my way into the room where the porter had set my trunks. I nudged the door closed with the toe of my boot, then set my satchel and basket on the floor. I knelt down to open the wicker basket. “We’re here,” I told Isis. “You can come out now.”

As soon as I lifted the lid, she shot out of the basket like a black lightning bolt. She stalked around the room, stopping to sniff here and there, trying to determine if the room met with her approval.

While she was deciding, I rifled through my trunk looking for the least-wrinkled frock I could find. The butterscotch-colored taffeta seemed to have traveled the best, so I took it out and shook the wrinkles from it. By that time, Isis returned to me and bumped her head against my ankle. “Is everything all right, then?” I asked her.

She meowed, and I bent to scratch her behind the ears. She ducked away from my hand and meowed again, this time prancing over to the window.

“Of course!” I said, horrified that I hadn’t thought of it first. “You must be desperate to go out.” I hurried over and opened the window, happy to see it overlooked a garden of some sort. “But do hurry back,” I told her. “I’ll need you to stand guard while I’m out with Mother.”

Isis gave a short warble of consent, then leaped outside and disappeared among the bushes.

I stepped out of my travel-stained gown and went to wash the travel dust from my face, neck, and arms. Scrubbed clean, I stared at myself in the mirror, looking for any sign that my eyes might be beginning to turn brown like Mother’s. But, no luck. They hadn’t gotten more blue like Father’s, either. They were still the color of swamp mud and unlike anyone elses in my family.

Answers, I promised myself. I would find answers on this trip. That was the other reason I had agreed to keep my promise to Awi Bubu.

I went back to the bed and slipped into my clean frock. I wished desperately that there was some way to carry a five pound stone tablet on my person, but there simply wasn’t. I would have to leave the Emerald Tablet where it was. I was very careful to not let myself think of the hiding place in case someone skilled in Egyptian magic could snatch it from my mind.

Just as I’d finished brushing my hair, Isis appeared on the windowsill. “Perfect timing—oh, what have you got?” Something small and wriggly dangled from her jaws. I hurried over to shut the window and lock it tightly behind her.

“Theo? Are you ready?” Mother called out.

“Coming!” I called back. I turned to Isis. “Don’t let anyone near our treasure. I’m counting on you.”

She gave a low-throated growl, then stalked back to her basket, climbed in, and began to make crunching sounds.

“Er, enjoy your dinner.” I glanced at the reticule on the bed. I thought briefly of putting it in one of the drawers, but a reticule was the first thing even a common thief would look for. No, it seemed best to bring it with me. Sighing, I slipped the wretched reticule onto my wrist and went to find my mother and Mr. Bing.