To bring the dead to life is no great magic. Few are wholly dead: Blow on a dead man’s embers and a live flame will start
London, August 1869
“This is the story of a beast, so great and fearsome that he was reviled by all. And of a merchant’s daughter, brave and beautiful, whose love for the beast redeemed his soul.”
“Bor-ing,” piped a girlish voice through the gloom.
At this rather rude interruption, the boy who’d been speaking glared down at the girl lying by his side on the sable rug. Hidden between giant bundles of cotton and wool, stored away in the massive warehouse until Tuesday’s shipment, one might overlook the small pair. They were good children, from good homes, who liked to think themselves orphans in a cruel land or castaways lost at sea.
Anything that gave a sense of adventure to the world.
Already, they had played pirates against the Navy, which he won fair and square Admiral Nelson always bested Anne Bonny–then successfully defended their fort against rampaging red men in the American West. Next came story time.
“Boring?” The boy’s snub nose wrinkled. A gesture that, he would not be pleased to know, made him appear younger and not at all distinguished. “You ought to listen well,” he advised sternly. “As a merchant’s daughter, the deeds of other merchants’ daughters ought to be given due respect–”
She cut him off with a dramatic yawn, her red-gold locks spilling across the sable as she snuggled down further. The back of the warehouse was cold, despite the dry August heat outside, but no one would find them there, for it was Sunday. Only old Dover remained to keep watch, and he let them have their fun so long as they kept out of sight.
“Yes,” she said, blinking up at him with her great big owl eyes. “That is all very good, but you’ve told me this story several times.” She lifted her head. “Several times.”
The boy sat up in a huff. “Very well. Seems I am too boring to provide this afternoon’s entertainment.” He leaned in, and a wild gleam lit his eyes, one laden with mischief.
“You know it is cold in here, isn’t it?”
She glared back at him. “No.”
He did not give in that easily. It was the best trick the boy had ever seen, and she’d only just let him in on her secret. “I bet you can’t even do it again,” he said with a sniff.
She shot up from her comfortable nest. “Can too!”
“Bet you your flip knife that you can’t.”
The girl’s little fists balled tight. There was no force on earth that would tempt her to give up her knife. It was her most precious possession. Old Dover had given the Chatellerault to her. A completely inappropriate gift for a girl, but Dover told her that girls needed more protection than boys so she ought to have one. He even taught her to use it. The boy had been jealously coveting the knife ever since.
The boy scowled now. “Bah, it wasn’t even that good of a trick. My seven consecutive cartwheels were more impressive–”
Her small, white hand grabbed the lamp from the floor. “I do it, and you’ll be owing me fencing lessons.” The boy’s father had enrolled him in classes that year, and she had been jealously coveting his knowledge ever since.
“Done. Now quit stalling.”
Looking grim and squinty, she licked her fingers and snuffed out the candle. Darkness covered them. They sat huddled together, their excited breathing coming out in small pants—one would never admit it to the other, but they were both afraid of the dark.
“Go on.” He nudged her knee. “Do it, then.”
“I will,” came a girlish snap. “Now hush.”
In the dark, she wriggled, fiddling with the folds of her skirt, unaware that fate teemed about her, swirling like a well -stirred soup. A spark shot out like a star trailing across the night sky. It caught the candlewick, lighting it instantly.
“See,” she said, beaming. “I told you I could do it.”
She had a right to be proud. No other girl on earth understood fire the way she did. How it came alive, like a newborn soul. And how, like a soul, it strove to live, did all it could to ensure its survival. For as long as she could remember, fire had been her friend. It called to her own soul, create me, set me free. Fire made her invincible–well nearly.
The tiny flame flickered as the girl laughed, but she set the candle down in haste. It teetered, pausing midair for one harrowing moment, then fell into a towering bale of cotton.
The light of the flames illuminated the rounded faces of the children, distorting the look of terror that came over them as the cotton bale ignited as fast as a dress brushing a coal fire.
With a near human roar, the flames engulfed the cotton, swallowing it whole as though it were a small snack for its hunger. Unsatisfied, it reached out with a red tongue to taste another bale.
The boy grabbed his mate’s hand and pulled her hard.
“Run,” he screamed, yanking her along, for she’d gone white as paste, transfigured by the fire she had started. It rose above them, a leviathan from hell eating all in its path before turning on them, snarling and rolling, black and hot.
“Run, Miranda, run!”
But even as Miranda fled and felt sharp sparks of flame kiss the tender skin along her nape, she knew her vanity had ruined everything.
London, March 1, 1879
Miranda remembered a time when she did not fear.
When life was comfortable, a warm cocoon in which she basked. When she’d awakened each day to a fire roaring merrily in the grate, her maid drawing back the heavy satin curtains at her window to let the sun shine in before setting a silver tray upon a stand by her bed. Ah, that tray, filled with flaky little pastries, succulent hothouse fruits, and a pot of hot chocolate. Those scents alone could make her shiver with happiness.
And now? Now her room was dark and cold. The satin drapes were gone, replaced with tired woolen hangings filled with a constellation of holes that let in silver stars of white, morning light. The bedding beneath her head was not fresh and plump but old and lumpy, needing to be washed and aired—backbreaking work that would have to be seen to later.
Silently, she sat up and swung her legs over the side of the creaking bed. Her feet met with ice-cold wood. The Turkish rugs had been sold relatively early on as there was always a good market for such things. She fumbled around for her worn slippers, which were fortunately free of vermin, and then scuffled over to the wash bin. Ice had formed around the edges of the water-filled ewer, so she washed quickly.
Yes, Miranda remembered comfort quite well. Only now did she realize that the absence of it meant its replacement with constant fear and worry, an ache that never fully left her stomach. She rubbed that region of her torso as she stared into the mirror. She did not see her face. She did not see anything. Her mind turned to her dreams, and the ache in her stomach intensified. She’d been dreaming of Him again, the man who had saved her in an alleyway some months ago, the man who clung to shadows, never to show his face, yet always to dwell in her mind.
Unwittingly, her gaze went to the jewel box on her dressing table. It was empty now of all but a few earrings and one golden coin. He’d given it to her, that strange coin with the face of the moon embossed on it.
“It is pure gold. Melt it down and sell it when you have need.”
Not that she’d ever tried to pawn it. To sell it would be to abandon hope. Abandon dreams.
“Bugger,” she muttered, turning back to the mirror. Why did she have to dream of him? Of his rasping voice and strong, hard thighs. The mystery man who had turned her world on its ear.
“Who are you?”
“A concerned subject of the Crown.”
Ha! Most likely a hunted subject of the Crown. He hadn’t even let her see his face. She ought to be thankful she got away from such a shady character unscathed. But he had helped her. And done nothing to stop her when she’d searched his person for weapons. The skin along her palms throbbed as if remembering the feel of his thighs as she skimmed along their length, then up to the turgid swell of his bu**ocks.
Miranda’s face flamed. Cursing, she plunged her hands into the ice water once more. She hadn’t time for dreams.
She had things to do. The loud growl coming from her stomach punctuated the fact. She had a breakfast to find.
Egypt, March 1, 1879
Coming to Egypt had been a colossal waste of time. Not a single soul had any information regarding the hours leading up to Daoud’s death, a fact that scraped at Archer’s insides until he wanted to punch something. His hands tightened on the reins, and his horse, feeling Archer’s agitation, nickered and tossed its head. Archer loosened his grip and concentrated on his destination instead.
Ahead of him lay a sight better suited to legends and myth. Red sand undulated toward the setting sun, a great, pulsing ball of liquid fire that slipped between the black rise of the towering pyramids of Giza. Those grand structures, geometric shapes that reached up to the heavens—not in supplication but as if to shout out man’s ingenuity and will — took his breath away. His throat tightened at the sight.
At least here, dressed as a native, Archer was not forced to wear his smothering mask. Now, he wore a gallibaya, a traditional Muslim tunic that fell loosely to his ankles. Around his head was a kafiyah that he’d taken the liberty of wrapping over his face, just beneath his eyes. Odd, yes, but not as odd as a hard carnival mask, and much more breathable. With the brown face paint he’d smeared over his skin, he might be mistaken, at least momentarily, for a native. Only when one got close and saw his eyes would the illusion fade.
Beside him, his guide eyed Archer with nervous intent.
Amar was a crafty sort, an unrepentant tomb robber, good with a knife, and possessing an in-depth knowledge of the local criminal contingent. That Archer paid him a fortune did not necessarily mean Archer wouldn’t find himself at the business end of Amar’s knife at some point. Archer gave Amar a hard stare. The sly devil would be in for an unfortunate surprise should he try it.
“Ride ahead and tell our party that we are here,” Archer said. He wanted to hear what Amar told these men without Archer’s presence to stay his tongue. It would never occur to the guide that Archer would be able to hear every word said, even from some hundred yards off.
Amar nodded. “Very well, sayyid,” he said with false humility.
Archer held Amar’s shifting gaze for a moment. “You will die first, should you deceive me,” he promised, switching to Arabic because he knew speaking in Amar’s language would irritate the man on a personal level, and because, really, threats delivered in Arabic were so much more lyrical.
“For my anger is a terrible wind that strips flesh from bone.”
The guide’s dark eyes flashed in the golden light.
Cunning, planning. Amar had claimed that a small band of thieves had found Daoud’s body first. Being thieves, they’d rifled through Daoud’s clothes. Archer didn’t care what money they had taken, but if they’d found some clue to where Daoud had been, Archer wanted to know.
Daoud, Archer’s friend and personal secretary, had been sure he’d found a cure for Archer. He’d sent the secret hidden on a ship to London, only for that ship to be claimed by pirates and then sunk in a sudden storm, an incident that could still make Archer tremble with rage. If Amar had plans for him, he’d be compelled to plot them now with his cohorts.
“I follow you in all things, sayyid,” the guide said, then rode ahead.
Archer waited for Amar to reach his destination, closing his eyes as the sun-baked air danced over him in a caress that stirred his robes. Energy pulsed through his limbs, strong, unnerving. Here, in this land of heat, light, and magic, he felt stronger than ever, capable of lifting his horse and tossing it far should the desire hit him. Such strength unnerved him, and yet made him feel oddly at home. For all the inconvenience, he’d always been fond of Egypt and her ancient mysteries. If only…
No. He would not think about her. Not now. Not when she haunted his dreams. He needed his wits about him.
Thinking about silky hair the color of gold in firelight wouldn’t do. Nor would it do to imagine the curve of her upper lip, so plump and full. He’d lick his way across that luscious curve before dipping his tongue… Archer shifted in his saddle and really glared at the pyramids. No. Only the nights were Miranda’s, only his dreams. She had no place in the present.
Save that she did. He needed a cure. Find the cure and he could claim her. Find the cure and his life could begin.
He’d sent her greedy crook of a father enough funds to keep her safe until Archer could come for her. Her father, Hector Ellis, the very merchant who’d paid those damnable pirates to steal Archer’s ship.
Archer recalled the night he’d finally tracked Ellis down.
It was the same night he’d met his daughter. Miranda, the willful, fearless young lady who had faced two thugs intent on raping her without flinching. Miranda, who had chastised Archer for stepping in and scaring them off. The moment they’d met, Archer felt alive, felt like a man, not a thing.
Archer had met with Ellis the following morning and had been disgusted by the man’s cowering and sniveling.
“I should kill you for what you have done,” Archer had told him. “I should do it slowly, so you might experience even a tenth of what I’ve been through.”
“Please, my lord! I did not know! I did not know it was your ship!”
Bastard that he was, Archer had used every ounce of intimidation that he had at hand. And when Ellis had been reduced to sobbing for his life, Archer gave him a way out.
“Despite my better judgment, I am willing to consider a trade for your life.”