Paris, France ~ October 1889
Virgil Mallory came into Eleanor Folley’s life during the autumn of her thirtieth year, a time when she should have been perfectly content to be with her father, books, or specimens from the field. Hers was not the life of a nun, she assured people (indeed, many presumed she had been packed off to a convent school, considering her Unfortunate Youth), but that of a librarian. No difference, her adviser and fellow librarian Juliana had argued.
“Would you look at that?”
Juliana’s voice beckoned, and Eleanor looked up from the collection of Senegal shells she was sorting, a fine and disorganized mess after yesterday’s hordes of younger Exposition visiteurs. She peered over the table at Juliana, at the gold ribbons that wrapped her auburn hair into a perfect Psyche knot. The woman’s interest seemed captured by something more than the airships passing over the clear glass roof of the Exposition Universelle all morning.
“Is it another elephant?” Eleanor asked, her voice thin after a restless night. Two elephants had already passed through the Galerie des Machines that morning—one of living flesh, one of cleverly engineered clockwork. Eleanor was hard-pressed to say which beast was more remarkable, as each was astounding in its own way. Both beasts had responded to the commands of their handlers—abattre, debout, révérence—though the living elephant had been less amused at the idea of showing a leg than the clockwork creature had.
Eleanor placed a cowrie shell back in its proper bin and stood, brushing dust from her skirt as she straightened it. She longed for her trousers, but had made a promise to her father: trousers were permissible for adventuring, but skirts were required in public. The Exposition Universelle in Paris was as public as anything could be, Eleanor supposed, with citizens of almost every nation coming to gawk at Eiffel’s tower, the Negro village, and the Galerie des Machines, in which they now found themselves. The gallery was massive, constructed of glass and iron, hinged arches vaulting above to enclose the largest interior space in the world. The way the light filtered through the glass intensified the colors of frescos, burnished the gleam of machines, and even seemed to make people glow—everything and everyone appeared gilded, as if having emerged from the pages of an illuminated manuscript
Though the Folleys had been in Paris five months, it remained a daily wonder for Eleanor to work among the other exhibitors. The opportunity to show their research, inventions, and collection was something that might not come again. Eleanor appreciated, too, the chance it gave her to soak in the variety of languages and attempt to bend her tongue around them. While French was second nature to her, there were other less common languages she longed to explore.
Such conversations rained down from the elevated track that circled the gallery above the exhibition space. Visitors could walk, or ride in carriages, above the machines but also among them, as a variety of flying beasts flaunted their lavish designs. Mechanical pterodactyls, owls, and sparrows reeled in the sunlight that streamed through the glass ceiling. More than one of the miniature mechanical dodos had found itself entangled in a lady’s hat or hair, and it soon became a desired distinction. If you hadn’t had an encounter with a dodo, your Exposition experience was not complete.
Folley’s Nicknackatarium had never known such an honor. Eleanor tried to remind herself that it was an honor, even as other exhibitors tried to turn their inclusion into something else; most felt the Folleys didn’t belong here or with them—surely it could be only chance or pity that found them within these circles. Her father’s reputation as an archaeologist had never been sterling, and marrying an Egyptian only deepened the tarnish. In the wake of Dalila Folley’s disappearance, his status in archaeological circles dropped even lower. The Folleys were Irish, after all, people murmured; even his daughter had gone a-roving, so what precisely could one expect? Eleanor often wondered which straw would break him, but his love of the field never faltered.
“Not an elephant,” Juliana said as Eleanor joined the older woman at the edge of the main display table within the Folley booth. “Nor a dodo.”
What Eleanor saw might well have been another extraordinary clockwork creature, so little sense did it make at first. Her father was speaking with a young man, and in an environment where people the world over had come to witness the marvels of science and industry, one man speaking to another should have been in no way exceptional.
Yet her father did not speak to young men, and indeed went out of his way to avoid them. According to her father, men aged fifty or older were the only people who made for decent conversationalists; there was no sense in wasting words on anyone—save daughters, he would add with a wink to Eleanor.
The only young men he might exempt from his strict policy were those who chanced to unearth a mythical tomb or bring him a piece of sand-crusted evidence to add to his life’s research. Had you discovered the intact head of the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Renshaw Folley would see you straight away!
This young man was not Moorish, Indian, or Javanese, so it wasn’t his origin that her father found interesting, but something else. His features were unremarkable from a distance, skin pale and features drawn, as if he had not been out of doors in years. He appeared average in every way, clad in a simple ditto suit of coal black, black cravat tied haphazardly beneath the beard that covered his chin. His hair was cut to his jawline, longer than fashion dictated, and rather disorderly, unable to settle on one color; bits of blond curled in the midst of darker brown. The brown matched his eyes—something in his eyes…he was not as young as she had first thought. Her attention flicked to the bright pin he wore in his lapel: a gold letter M curled within a copper twist of clouds. Eleanor’s mouth flattened into a thin line at the sight of the symbol.
“Do you know him?” Juliana whispered.
“Only his kind,” Eleanor said somewhat hoarsely, her mouth having gone dry. She did not wish to know why an agent of Mistral was here, even as she very much did want to know. She had always felt the organization could be more than it was—if only someone cared to take the time to make it so. Had he come to escort them out, to remind them they were Irish and should, at the least, go back to Dublin if they could go no farther? “And he smells odd.”
Eleanor could not name the scent that rose even above the gentle lily fragrance Juliana wore; perhaps the young man had walked through Professor Twine’s Miracle Steam Bath before he’d come here. The scent could be anything, for the petite professor claimed he could enhance his steam with any scent from past or present. Eleanor wished to smell her mother once more—bergamot, black tea, sun-drawn sweat from days on digs—but had yet to visit Twine to see if it might be possible. She closed her hand into a fist within the folds of her skirt, making an effort not to reach for the comforting lump of the ring she wore on a chain hidden beneath her blouse. Even so, her mind whispered the poem in which she often sought shelter: Backward, turn backward, O time, in thy flight; Make me a child again, just for to-night.
Her father gestured across the aisle to their booth now, past the glass-encased statues of Horus and Osiris, to Eleanor. The young man’s gaze settled on her, entirely too curious and lengthy as he assessed her. Eleanor straightened and turned away, preparing to disappear into the back of their booth and slip into the neighboring one if her bustle allowed. She could lose herself in the Exhibition for the rest of the day, walking the maze of it as confidently as she could any ancient tomb. Maybe the Miracle Steam Bath could hide her from the curious eyes of young men from Mistral. At the very least, she could distract herself. Eleanor grabbed a book, but her father’s voice caught her before she could vanish within its pages.
“Eleanor, a moment please. Surely that text can wait, and”—his mouth twisted in a vague smile as she turned back toward the shells—“the children will be here in an hour’s time to make the shells sing yet again.”
Her father crossed the aisle and tugged the book from Eleanor’s grasp, his hands closing around it as if they were the best kind of old friends. Without the book, Eleanor felt strangely naked under the continuingly curious regard of…
“Eleanor, this is Agent Virgil Mallory. With… Mistral.” He gestured to the young man who had followed him.
Eleanor did not miss the slight pause before her father mentioned Mistral. Nothing good had ever come from that quarter in Eleanor’s opinion, and she doubted anything would. Covert agencies never seemed to care about desires beyond their own.
Eleanor forced a smile at the young man and took a closer look at him. What had rumpled his suit and left his hair disorganized? He smelled both bitter and sweet and, beneath that, another layer that felt somehow old. He must have been accustomed to people staring at him, for he did not stir under her study—not even when Eleanor’s eyes widened in final recognition of the scent. Opium. He smelled like opium smoke.
“My daughter, Miss Folley,” her father said. “Librarian for the Nicknackatarium, but she was there that day, all of twelve, I think, when those men appeared out of the dust.” Folley lifted his fingers to his mouth.
That day, all of twelve.
No matter the reasons this young man had for approaching her father, Eleanor told herself that speaking of the day her mother vanished could not be chief among them. Just as her father did not speak to young men, neither did people speak of the day Dalila Folley vanished. It wasn’t done.
Eleanor’s attention followed her father’s motion to his mouth. She could remember the blood on his lips that day, could remember how bright it was in the swirling, obscuring sand. Renshaw dropped his hand and shook his head, as if he were trying to not remember. He extended a hand toward Juliana.
“Mrs. Juliana Day. Also a librarian of ours, but not there. That day.”
“That day” was never far from Eleanor’s thoughts, although she had tried to lock it away for her father’s sake. Now she couldn’t understand why her father was speaking of it—almost casually—in the presence of a Mistral agent. Dread should have bent her shoulders, fear pricking every finger, but instead it was hope that buoyed her up. Hope was decidedly worse.
Their entire world had been turned upside down “that day,” and while she had sought to right it, her father begged her to leave the memories be. She had been but a child, had surely misunderstood what she saw. Eleanor could not deny that possibility, but neither could she stop trying to understand. She had lost her mother that day, but Renshaw had lost his wife. Which was worse?
In the eighteen years between then and now, Eleanor hadn’t found a single satisfying answer to the strange occurrences of that day. Her father’s solution was to leave the field entirely and open his Nicknackatarium to allow the people of Dublin a glimpse of ancient Egypt. His every action told her to seek no answers, even though they were what Eleanor most wanted. Could she find them now?
She looked again to Mallory, wishing for her father’s sake she could send him away, wishing to smother the small flame of hope his presence had inexplicably lit.
Mallory inclined his head the merest bit to Eleanor and Juliana, a strand of gold-brown hair slipping free along his temple. He brushed it back and Eleanor noticed the tarnished silver ring encircling his right index finger. Skulls peered from the metal. A memento mori?
“Mr. Mallory,” Eleanor said.
“Agent,” he corrected, and his long fingers delved into his worn jacket to withdraw a neatly kept silver badge imprinted with a number.
The lapel pin he wore did more to prove his position to Eleanor. Where might one inquire as to the legitimacy of a badge number for a mysterious organization few even knew existed? Mistral did not make its offices or officers public.
“Agent, what brings you to our booth today?” She gestured toward the device sitting in the center of the main table, the squat machine that had gained them entry into the Exposition. “Have you need of Folley’s Extraordinary Efficient Extractor? The Triple E, able to pinpoint priceless artifacts beneath even the densest soils and ensure a clean, intact extraction?”
Mallory grinned at her practiced pitch. Juliana gestured toward the small marvel of science, her hands gently drawing invisible circles and waves in the air. The machine, with its exposed tubes and cogs, was ugly even in the golden light of the hall. A panel of switches and lights stretched across the machine’s surface; bright blue extensions—resembling braces that would hold a man’s pants up—allowed the machine to be supported by one’s shoulders. Hideous.
Still, Eleanor knew one did not have to be beautiful to serve science. The device had to do with magnetic fields—not that she fully understood it. She could have taken the time, but it was her father’s invention and Eleanor found little use for it. She preferred to make discoveries on her own, with fingers and shovel, dirt packing every fingernail. Why allow a machine to attempt what she could better accomplish?
“Agent Mallory has come with distressing news,” her father said. He clutched the book to his chest like a shield.
Her father could rarely resist when it came to telling a distressing tale—as long as he was not the main character.
“Distressing?” Juliana’s gestures ceased and she reached for Eleanor’s arm.
Distressing coupled with the mention of “that day” made Eleanor’s attention waver. Distressing for her father may well mean exultant for her. She forced herself to be still, to be the deferential daughter her father longed for her to be.
Agent Mallory, unaware of her father’s penchant for telling distressing tales, delivered his news. “The ring has been stolen from the Egyptian Museum,” Mallory said. He slid his badge back in a vest pocket, and then opened a portfolio Eleanor had not noticed he was carrying under his arm.
“The ring?” Eleanor asked while Mallory shuffled through pages and loose papers. She wanted to leap at the papers, spread the pages out and devour what they contained. It was the same feeling that always claimed her before entering an unknown tomb. “Surely the Egyptian Museum possesses more than one ring, Agent Mallory.” But for Eleanor Folley, there could be only one ring within that museum. She could feel the ring she wore on a chain beneath her blouse pressing between her breasts, almost insistent, as if asking if one of its three siblings had been found.
Mallory’s brown eyes flicked from his papers to Eleanor, annoyance plainly writ in the fine line atop his straight nose. “Your ‘Lady’s’ ring, Miss Folley,” he said and produced, without looking away from Eleanor, a small photograph. He offered it to her.
Eleanor thought the photograph felt much heavier than it should. Memory, she supposed, could make even an image hard to hold. The mummified arm was as she remembered it, still wrapped in crumbling fabric. The desert had preserved a goodly portion of the desiccated skin, though at the delicate wrist and hand, it had shredded to reveal bone thin as winter twigs. Eleanor had last cradled the arm on a sandy plain outside Cairo. Her mother had pressed it into Eleanor’s protective embrace, saving it from being trampled by metallic hooves mere moments before her mother…vanished? Was taken?
“She’s not my Lady,” Eleanor whispered, but could not release the photograph. Her fingers tightened until her thumbnail gleamed white. She thought she could smell the dust of Egypt: could taste it again on her tongue, a drug as strong as Agent Mallory’s opium, heady and capable of carrying her backward in time.
Backward, turn backward…
The story of the Lady and her rings was supposed to be fiction, a tale told to child-Eleanor to carry her into sleep. But sleep had never come easily after the discovery of the real Lady and her four rings; the appearance of her horses, her guards. The memory of unearthing the mummy’s arm with her mother had the power to make her feel all of twelve again; it made her remember everything her father so desired her to forget.
In the photograph, the wooden crate housing the arm had been crudely broken. A crowbar, Eleanor thought as she studied the deep bite marks that scarred the edge of the box. The arm, lying on a bed of muslin, had not been injured and still appeared to be colored with the fingerprints of Eleanor’s own blood—but the Lady’s fingers were bare. The single ring left to her was missing.
“Some of the museum’s contents have been in transit of late,” Mallory said in a low tone as another group of exhibitors passed them down the aisle, speaking exuberant French. “The Nile flooded the museum this past summer, leaving things unsettled.”
“Unsettled” seemed an understatement. The flood damage had been a subject of great interest among Egyptologists and archaeologists. Her father had offered to shelter items needing housing in the Nicknackatarium in Dublin, but the curator scoffed. The great museums of the world had made similar gestures, and Renshaw Folley was but a discredited archaeologist whose wild tales of his wife’s disappearance—which he now so wished to forget—had tarnished his credibility. He would forever be considered little more than a dabbler, a purveyor of knickknacks, never a serious archaeologist who meant to preserve artifacts before time swept them away.
“It is believed to be the work of a single person,” Mallory continued after glancing behind him to ensure they were still alone. “A person with intimate knowledge of the museum and its security. A person who knew the Lady remained when so much else had been moved.”
Eleanor’s head came up sharply and she looked at Mallory, surprised to find his eyes on her. She knew the conversation was about to take a fateful turn. Mallory would know about her past—he was with Mistral, was he not? He would ask for her help and dredge up everything Eleanor had tried to leave behind for her father’s sake. She wanted to tug Juliana away before Mallory could say more, for there was much her friend did not know.
“No, Agent Mallory.”
A person with intimate knowledge of the museum and its security procedures. A person who knew the Lady remained when so much else had been moved. Eleanor could picture the steady hands bypassing locks, the shadowy form slipping past any guard. Fear whispered Christian in her ear, but she refused to believe him responsible for the theft.
Surely he would not—
Yet he so easily could.
How many valuable artifacts had she discovered with Christian Hubert? How many dangerous situations had they been in during their time together—and managed to get out of? She could not count. Could he have slipped into a museum, silent as snow, melting into shadows when the need arose?
Eleanor returned the photograph to Mallory and reclaimed her book from her father. The leather cover held the heat of his embrace, familiar and safe the way it had been that long-ago day. “Eleanor, to me!”
Her mother crying out for the arm. Men on mechanical horses, clockwork steads stronger than their living counterparts, emerging from the desert sands. Her mother running with the arm until those horses caught her. Until those men dismounted and—
Their mouths were not human…
“My reply to anything you may have to say is no,” she added when Mallory appeared as if he were about to speak again. She set her jaw, an ache winding through her. “The Lady was lost to us years ago. Let her rest.”
This was the line her father asked her to walk, the path from which she tried not to stray. But how could she not stray with that body still lost under ancient sands? With a ring now stolen, how could she not leap wholeheartedly from that path?
Eleanor left the men and Juliana to their own devices, too conflicted to stay. She hated the hope she felt—that all the mysteries could be solved; that, with answers, she might be able to put it all at last to rest. Her father would tell her no, please don’t, as he ever had.
She left the gallery on trembling legs, to take deep, steadying breaths of the crisp October air outside. The Exposition would close at month’s end. Why did Mallory have to find them now?
She pressed herself against the glass-and-iron flank of the building and stared down at her scarred hand. The worst of the marks were hidden beneath her sleeve, but every day they reminded her of the Lady, her mother, and the loss of both. Eleanor looked at Eiffel’s tower rising against the blue sky. Only then did she decide that her father was right. Young men were not worth the trouble.
Giza Plateau, Egypt ~ October 1881
Egypt tasted as Eleanor remembered: gritty, dry, and full of a hundred thousand secrets. She licked her lips and peered down the long corridor before her. A shadow moved across the ancient tomb walls.
Her grip closed hard on her lantern handle. The shadow did not come again, so she took a step toward the corridor’s end, where according to her map it intersected with another long corridor. Eleanor had paid good money for the map and hoped it was accurate; she had no desire to get lost in this home of ancient bones. She reasoned that if another person were already in the tomb, she could follow them as easily as she could her map. But to what end? Who were they and what did they want here? This tomb was small, supposedly not well known. Foolish to follow them, she decided, studying her map once more before tucking it into her trouser pocket. She wasn’t about to have come all this way only to have a shadow spook her. She was determined to sketch the hieroglyphs of the tomb’s limestone walls, another step in her quest, and exit as neatly as she had entered.
“Imagination,” she said, and her voice echoed back to her. “That’s all. Only—” The shadow came again, resolving into the unmistakable shape of a body large enough to be male. “—imagination.”
Eleanor lowered her lantern flame and stood in the half-light, listening. She heard the crunch of boots. As quietly as she could, she withdrew her revolver from its holster and moved down the shadowed corridor, toward the flicker of light that glowed around another corner.
At the corridor’s end, the god of eternity, Heh, crouched above the doorway with open arms. In one hand he held the looped cross of an ankh, the symbol for “life,” while the other clutched palm reeds. The shen ring—sign of infinity—was carved beside his head. Eleanor could not help but stare; the carving was flawless, blackened by time but otherwise untouched.
The man—were it such a creature rather than a minotaur or other beast of myth—had headed left, and Eleanor followed, foolish though it was. East, toward the sun and the burial chamber of a simple artisan. Simple perhaps, but still revered, for his tomb was beautiful and sparked Eleanor’s imagination at every turn.
She could not imagine, however, what she discovered in the final chamber. The hieroglyphs were ruined, the walls defaced, history pummeled into small fragments, the floor strewn with debris. The man—quite solid, no longer a shadow—crouched beyond the sarcophagus with his lantern in front of the only untouched section of wall. He was prying out a section of the inscribed stone.
“No,” Eleanor whispered.
The man turned to appraise her, his eyes colorless within the lamplit room. “Took you long enough,” he said in a rumble of French. He turned back to his task. Large hands well suited to the work moved around the jagged slab of stone, working with hammer and chisel.
Despite her anger, Eleanor easily understood the French, even if she didn’t immediately understand what he meant—took her long enough to what? Her anger clouded everything. Had he destroyed every marking, only to take the surviving panel with him? Eleanor looked at the carved desert hare beneath his hands, the word for “open,” and the shining sun, “illumine.” She saw no more, for the stone crumbled with his next chisel. He clicked his tongue.
“How could you?” Eleanor rushed forward as his hands came away, broken stone cascading over his boots, dust clouding the air between them. “Did you destroy everything? Is it all—”
He sounded as defeated as Eleanor felt. He stood and angled his lamp upward, the light slanting across the ceiling. Eleanor followed its path to see only a few gold stars remaining amid chipped blue paint. She looked to his lamp-brightened face and realized who he was.
Christian Hubert was well known in archaeological circles, an explorer beyond compare. He was the stuff of legends: wealthy, highly skilled, arrogant, and apparently leaning toward Egypt rather than Greece when it came to unearthing the ancient world. Knowing who he was, Eleanor rejected the idea that he’d meant to demolish the carvings, or inflict the rest of the damage around them. Then who had? His earlier words settled in.
“Took me long enough?” she asked.
Hubert tucked hammer and chisel into his rolled leather pack. If he was still disappointed by losing the final panel of stone, he didn’t show it. “What’s a little girl like you doing in a place like this? You should be at a tea party.” His tone was balanced on the edge of laughter.
Eleanor’s entire body trembled, not from anger, but despair. She looked away from Hubert, to the destruction of the chamber. Symbols remained here and there, but only in partial. Heads of horned vipers, tails of winged owls, nothing that would ever read as whole again. The words Eleanor had sought, the words that might explain where her mother had gone were rubble and dust around them.
Her father’s words crept back to her, even in this place. She’s dead, Eleanor, she went where the dead go. Eleanor could not believe that.
Hubert laughed when she didn’t answer him, and soon the light around Eleanor faded. He had left and taken his lamp with him. For a long minute, she didn’t care, could hardly muster the energy to turn the flame up on her own lantern to search the walls again, for something, anything. Even the broken sarcophagus in the center of the room was empty. Nothing remained of the artisan who had once made rings for a lady’s hand.
Eleanor drew her notebook and pencil out, forcing her hands to steady, to at least make a record of what little remained. What had Flinders Petrie said—that Egypt was like a house on fire and one must preserve her before she vanished entirely, as though she had never been? Would this bit help Eleanor find what she sought? Her shaking fingers traced the fragment of a horned viper upon the wall, then fell away.
Outside again, the sunlight was dazzling and almost painfully warm compared to the cool shadows of the tomb. She was relieved to find her camel where she’d left it and no sign of Hubert. Eleanor hadn’t thought he, the Great Explorer, would stoop so low as to steal the beast, though many in the desert would. She pressed her gauze-draped pith helmet back onto her head, but still found herself squinting against the sunlight as she mounted the camel and left the tomb site. She had placed too much hope within it.
She sought the smoky dimness of a tavern, numbing herself with cool draughts of black, foamy Egyptian beer. The men in the tavern paid her no attention, not even when she lit a cigarette. She was on her third when a large hand covered hers and drew the cigarette down from her lips.
“Those are bad for you, little girl.”
That same amused and mocking tone. Christian Hubert spoke again in French, and while Eleanor was not yet fluent, French was coming easier than Greek or Latin. He lowered himself onto the bench beside Eleanor and stamped out her cigarette before helping himself to a long drink of her beer. He gestured to the bartender for another round while Eleanor tried to slide away from him. There was nowhere to go, save the end of the bench that led to a corner of the wall.
“What do you want?” she asked, keeping to French.
“I was going to ask you the same.” The waiter arrived with more beer and Hubert paid, dipping his head in thanks. The thin shaft of sunlight snaking through the carved screen of the high window illuminated Hubert’s golden hair; his eyes were revealed as green and not colorless as they had been within the tomb.
Eleanor closed her eyes and drank more beer. “Why couldn’t you have sailed to Greece?” she asked. “There is plenty of marble left to unearth and cart away.”
“How poetic you are with beer in your mouth.”
She looked at him, wishing he were the dust of a thousand years. She was both impressed and repulsed by him—would he help or hinder her quest? Was he also on the path of the rings? If so, why? She sat a little straighter.
“How old are you?” he asked. “And a woman, at that.” His eyes skimmed over her, taking in blouse and trousers, boots and weapons. “Folley’s girl, hmm? They talk about you, raised amid the tombs. Some say you have more in common with the dead than with the living.”
People talked about her? Good Lord. “And you?” she asked, feeling the sting of his words. Fresh from schooling at her father’s side, she knew what she was doing, at least, unlike so many tomb robbers who destroyed much in their effort to reach gleaming gold. “Forty?”
Hubert tipped his head back and gave such a pleased laugh that many in the bar turned to look at them.
“Such poetry.” He finished his beer and poured more from the clay pitcher. Dark and foamed at the edges, like old rivers, Eleanor thought.
“Age doesn’t matter,” Hubert said and clinked his mug against hers. “But may you live to catch me in years.”
They sat in silence, Eleanor content to watch him drink while she tried to make sense of things. Why had he been in the tomb? Before she could ask—
“What were you doing in that tomb?” he asked. “The tomb is small, and you… Well.”
Eleanor flinched. That single word felt like a barb in her skin. “Why were you there? No one cares about it. What does an artisan matter, when the pyramids of Giza could be visited?” That only made the destruction of the tomb more confusing. If the artisan didn’t matter, why destroy his burial place?
“Exactly.” Hubert touched the bracelet around Eleanor’s right wrist, hemp and shells. She withdrew her hand before he could look closer and see the scars beneath it. “Tell me that you’ve come to see firsthand what you learned. Lectures weren’t enough. You needed to see it for yourself.”
“If that story pleases you, by all means.”
His mouth moved in a smile, one that made Eleanor think of jackals. He was enjoying this game. “But it doesn’t. That’s not why you were there.”
Eleanor wanted very much to leave the tavern, but she could not escape the table without Hubert moving. With a steady hand, she reached out to touch the long fall of golden hair against his cheek, tucked it behind his ear, and let her fingers linger. This was more foolish than following his shadow, she thought, noting that his neck was smudged with dust. She suspected her own was as well.
Took you long enough, he had said. He knows what I’m doing…but why?
As she thought it would, her touch spurred him to motion, but not away from her, rather toward. She should have been shocked, but men were confusing creatures. She slid her hand down to his neck in an effort to keep him at bay.
“I don’t think you had better—”
Hubert’s mouth closed over hers in a kiss tasting of dust and beer. Eleanor leaned forward, as if to return the kiss, but her hand tightened on him and her teeth dug into his lip. Hubert pulled back, laughing. He stood from the bench and lifted his nearly empty glass to her.
“To your next raid, little girl,” he said. “May it be more profitable.”
Eleanor could only agree with the sentiment as Hubert left the tavern for the relative cool of an Egyptian evening. Her heart hammered madly in her chest and she shook her head. Entirely foolish.
Paris, France ~ October 1889
Eleanor brought her father his evening tea and settled into the patchwork-covered wing chair across from him. Their rented rooms were comfortable, and they had burrowed deeply in, having been there since May for the start of the Exposition Universelle. Juliana had retired to her own room some time ago, leaving Eleanor and her father to while away the evening as they were accustomed. Eleanor wished Juliana would join them more often, but understood why she didn’t; it was difficult to spend time with a man one might be falling in love with when that man’s mind was constantly either on his work or occupied with memories of his dead wife.
Eleanor moved one of her pawns on the chessboard between them, which drew a grunt from her father as he sipped his steaming tea. Needing something to do with her hands while he planned his next attack, Eleanor picked up her needlework, but could not concentrate on the innumerable stitches before her. It was ridiculous, making patterns on fabric when she should be quizzing Agent Mallory on the missing ring. Her mind could not let go of the image of the Lady’s hand without its ring.
Beyond the fourth-story windows, the Paris rain poured. Eleanor wanted to vanish within the storm; perhaps it would silence her mind to the Lady and Christian, to her mother and Egypt. She wished she could take her own advice and allow the Lady to rest, wished again that Juliana had lingered, for she could have excused herself from her father’s preoccupied presence and talked to the woman long into the night about such matters.
Juliana would save her from herself as she had so many times before in the small hours when she could not sleep. Juliana would hold Eleanor’s hands so Eleanor wouldn’t be tempted to slide her fingers into the ring she wore about her neck and ask it to carry her away.
Her father captured one of Eleanor’s knights and she stared at the board, angry with herself. It was a mistake she had made as a child. She discarded her needlework and saw only defeat on the chessboard battlefield before her. The ancient game of Senet was more to her liking, but that board stood dusty in a far corner of their home in Ireland, neglected since her mother’s disappearance—as so much had been.
“You’re distracted,” Renshaw said. He added his tea cup to the flotsam on the table: a bookmark without a book, a worn notebook with a fraying bind, a handful of shelled almonds, a tea strainer, a pencil chewed nearly to its core. Renshaw steepled his fingers and considered Eleanor over them.
“Don’t study me as though I’m a tomb. I’ve set everything aside that you asked me to.”
Having changed into more comfortable trousers earlier, Eleanor drew her knees to her chest. As always, there hung over her the feeling that her father’s eyes could look into her very soul. He would see every minuscule crack, would pry each open and peer inside to discover what she did not want him to see. Eleanor moved her bishop to claim a pawn, but there was little to gain from the move.
“Even the most hidden tomb eventually gives itself up,” he said. “The ground shifts, the sands part, and there is the past laid clean before us.” He exhaled and reclined into the chair. “I wish Mallory had not come to us today.”
“No, he is—” she drew a breath, conflicted again “—the last thing we needed.”
“His is not the first disturbance into this little life of ours.” Her father pushed his glasses from the tip of his nose back to the bridge and did not consider the chessboard, though Eleanor hoped his attention would fall there. “I know you, and you have not let the Lady rest. The lady—you, dear Eleanor—protests too much.”
Even if he didn’t immediately understand something he saw, Renshaw Folley filed it away until the day came that he did understand. Had he seen Eleanor reading the books he asked her not to read? Had he leafed through her notebooks?
“How could I let it rest?” Eleanor watched at her father in the low lamplight. “I don’t believe Mother is dead.”
“Eleanor.” Renshaw pushed away from the chessboard and rose from his chair. They were perhaps the worst words she could have said to him. She possessed a singular talent for being the fly in someone’s otherwise perfect soup.
Her father braced his hands against the windowsill and stared at the wet night. Beyond the reflections in the windowpane, Eleanor could see the lights of Paris gleam under the new coat of rain. Across the Seine, Eiffel’s Exposition tower stood as a smudge against the sky; the buildings of the Exposition were momentarily quiet and still. Their rooms overlooked the length of the Champs de Mars, a perfect witness to all Exposition activities, but tonight it could not occupy Eleanor’s mind the way it usually could. Mallory and the missing ring occupied her attention.
Agent Mallory would come back. Eleanor believed that as firmly as she believed her mother was not dead. Mallory was not the kind to let something rest; she had seen that in his eyes. He would return and ask Eleanor the thing he must ask. And she—she would say yes, despite the pain it would bring her father. Eleanor would help him recover the ring because she hoped it would lead to her mother. She had to know.
“Have you read my research then?” she asked when he said nothing more.
“Yes, and it’s better relegated to one of Mr. Verne’s fantastical novels if you ask me.” He didn’t turn from the window, but Eleanor could see his reflection: his creased forehead, the tears that shone behind his glasses. He drew them off and began to polish the lenses with the hem of his untucked, wrinkled shirt.
Eleanor felt all of eight years old and wanted to apologize. Her research had hurt him, as she had known it would. Still, she let the apology go unspoken, because it wouldn’t get them where they needed to go. If they didn’t solve this now, then when? “It’s why I never shared it with you. I knew it would hurt—”
“Not hurt,” he said as he again pushed his glasses back into place. He looked at Eleanor once and then back at Paris. “I’m angry and sad.”
A bad combination in a Folley, Eleanor knew all too well.
“You’ve shut yourself away from the rest of the world, Eleanor, and continue to dream of something impossible. Your mother is dead. I have prayed for you to accept this. How can you not? How can you cling to this fancy? I asked you to give this up years ago.”
“I tried.” Eleanor shuddered, feeling cold again as she recalled coming home from her journeys, unannounced and soaked to the bone with cold Dublin rain. The rain dripped to the stone floor, droplets leaving a trail behind her as she admitted her failure to learn anything new about her mother’s disappearance. As she’d traveled deeper into Egypt, into Israel, and Greece, Morocco, the path she had once so clearly seen dissolved like sugar under rain.
The longing to know, to understand, was reborn in Paris that spring, surrounded as Eleanor was by a wealth of information on Egypt and its peoples. The Louvre’s Department of Egyptian Antiquities brimmed with thousands of treasures, and she had spent hours studying, sketching. As wonderful as it was to see the crypt of Osiris or read the countless stèlae housed in the museum rooms, it was heart-wrenching that the items were no longer in Egypt. Even the Luxor obelisk in the Place de la Concord seemed to reach back toward Egypt, where it belonged with its sibling. Egypt ran like blood in her veins; she could taste it on her tongue even now. Agent Mallory sought to draw her into the past the way she believed her mother had been drawn. Men on mechanical beasts, ripping Dalila Folley from the quiet of an archaeological dig, perhaps wanting only the body they’d found, the rings the Lady possessed. There had been a glimmer against the horizon, like the waver of light on moving water, a shimmering heat mirage, and then— Nothing. Quiet, dust, her mother gone, her own blood in the sand. Eleanor could not refuse the opportunity to know the truth of that moment.
Eleanor crossed to her father, taking him by the shoulders to draw him from the window’s chill and back to his chair. She tucked his favorite wool blanket around his knees and offered him the tea again. He took the cup and sipped, looking a hundred years old, as fragile as any of the papyri in their small collection. His eyes were heavy with sorrow and regret and a dozen other emotions Eleanor did not want to name. She did not want to know how deeply she had hurt this man, but she could not help but see it in the vulnerable lines of his face.
She drew his glasses off and placed them on the untidy table. She pulled the blanket to his chin and dropped a kiss on his forehead while nudging the ottoman closer for his feet.
“Sleep and don’t worry,” she said.
“If Mallory comes back—”
“I’ll send him away.” It was a lie. As much as she wanted to honor her father’s wishes, Eleanor knew she could not send the agent away. Not if she were ever to understand her mother’s disappearance. Not if she meant to put the past firmly to rest. She turned the lamp down and squeezed her father’s hand before moving away.
She looked back at him. He lifted his feet onto the ottoman and she wished she could not count the times he had slept in chairs rather than the single bed in his room. The bed, narrow and meant for one, was still too large for him, he said. Though he wished to deny it, his grip on Dalila Folley had not lessened these many years, either.
“Father?” she asked.
“Checkmate in two.”
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