Egypt, New Year’s Eve, 1889
Once upon a time, when only the royal family and its retinue were permitted within Cairo’s fortified walls, there was a grand mausoleum known as the Turbat az-Za’faraan. Eleven generations of caliphs rested peacefully in the saffron tomb — until the first Mamluk sultan came along and decided it would make a splendid bazaar.
He tossed the royal bones onto a trash heap outside the city, knocked down a few walls and built the bustling souk called the Khan al-Khalili, a warren of shops and cafes and caravanserai. The market would prove a more durable institution than the rulers who preceded it. Centuries later, after the Turks replaced the sultans, the Khan al-Khalili remained Cairo’s beating heart, a place where you could haggle for incense and silk, spices and gold.
A place of twisting alleys and shadowed courtyards.
A place where you could knife someone and vanish without a trace.
John Mortlake, ignorant of the fact that he had minutes left to live, wandered through the bazaar, pausing to finger the fringe of a carpet or raise a silver tea set up to the light. The merchants who knew him averted their gazes. Others approached with welcoming smiles that faltered when they met his cold eyes, and left them muttering thanks to Allah when he moved on.
As Mortlake passed the El Fishawy Café, where men in long white shawbs and turbans drank coffee from battered copper pots, the mirrors covering the far wall caught his reflection: tall and heavy across the shoulders, with a bushy black beard and overcoat dusty from travel. Beneath the coat, he kept a pistol holstered in his belt. The beaten leather satchel over one shoulder held a set of coiled necromantic chains.
Since Mortlake first entered the souk from Qasaba Street, he had the unsettled feeling he was being followed. By long habit, he scanned his surroundings but saw nothing out of the ordinary. It was early evening and the khan hummed with voices: bartering and begging, boasting and arguing. A hundred smells drifted through the air. A hundred colors dazzled the eye. Lamplight gleamed on delicate globes of blown glass and exquisitely adorned silver dallah, those ubiquitous coffee urns that resembled the lush curves of a woman’s body.
Mortlake slowed before a shop selling hookahs and waited until he felt satisfied the shadow was a figment of his imagination. He still had a day until the payment was due, time enough to salvage what he could and run. Mortlake knew he was reckless — losing half a million pounds playing whist at the Saint James’s Club certainly qualified — but he wasn’t stupid. A stupid man would not have lived as long as he had. He would find the money (robbing and murdering someone rich being at the top of his list) and he would give it to Taj.
As soon as feasible.
But first he had to get rid of the girl.
Mortlake wound deeper into the labyrinth, striding through medieval stone archways, up and down flights of worn steps, into the oldest part of the Khan e-Khalili, whose foundations had once sat within the caliphate’s eastern palace. The intricate mosaics and vaulted ceilings threw back the echoes of his footsteps. There were few browsers and no tourists. The shops grew darker and shabbier. The merchandise on display was peculiar and often macabre; withered paws and distorted yellow skulls, murky bottles and half-moon daggers whose edges glimmered with fey blue light.
He’d nearly reached his destination when a man stepped from the alley ahead.
Mortlake halted and glanced back. Two more blocked his retreat. All wore flowing robes with black shemaghs that exposed only their blue eyes. The men’s hands were empty, but their kind had little need for mortal weapons. Frost formed where their bare feet touched the ground.
For a minute, the only sound was that of shutters quietly closing as the nearest merchants decided it would be prudent to go home early.
“Mortlake,” the first one said. “We didn’t expect you in Cairo until tomorrow.” His breath formed shards of ice that tinkled as they struck the tiled floor.
John Mortlake donned a mask of indifference, turning sideways so he could keep all three in view. “I have other business to attend to. It’s none of your concern.”
“No,” the creature said. “As long as you brought my master’s money.”
Mortlake licked his lips. “You’ll have it when we agreed. Tomorrow.”
The aquamarine stare grew colder. “Why don’t you pay us now? Since chance brought us together. We have much to do. It would save time.”
“I’m waiting for the bank wire to come through this afternoon.” Mortlake’s voice hardened. “Do you doubt me? I’ve always delivered.”
The two others stepped forward and Mortlake readied himself to run. Then the first flicked a finger and they halted.
“Of course. Besides which, we both know there are other ways of paying debts.” Amusement entered its voice. “Our master always has room for another pretty girl.”
Mortlake suppressed a growl. “Tomorrow,” he said through gritted teeth. “I’ll have the money tomorrow, as agreed.”
“See that you do. And our master expects you to pick up the new shipment. He wishes to see you in person.”
“I have no objection,” Mortlake said, hiding his relief. “We will meet at the arranged time.”
The three robed figures faded to shadows and flitted into cracks in the stone wall. He stood still for a moment, then cursed under his breath. At least they had accepted the lie. He knew they would be busy recruiting for the Trials. Concubines and would-be heroes.
Mortlake wasn’t sure which he pitied more.
After ensuring the agents were truly gone, Mortlake continued onward until he reached a dingy shop crammed with oddities of every description. At the sound of his footsteps, a young woman emerged from the rear. When she saw him, she locked the door without a word. Then she turned and unhooked one side of her veil, regarding him warily.
Mortlake’s daughter took after him in height and coloring, but her eyes belonged to her mother, large and almond-shaped like the Egyptian queens of old. For three decades he had kept her hidden from everyone but Taj – an oversight he now bitterly regretted.
“I can’t stay long,” he said gruffly, dropping the satchel on a bit of open counter space.
Her eyes followed the bag with a trace of revulsion. He knew she sensed the necromantic chains coiled within. Mortlake had concealed his true nature as long as possible, but once her gift manifested it became impossible.
He opened the satchel and took out several small carvings, six rings and a jade necklace. She examined them one at a time, touching each item with a dreamy expression. Then she divided the contents into two piles, one much larger than the other.
“These are the talismans,” she said, indicating the smaller pile.
He frowned. “So few?”
“Do you wish to know their purposes?”
“Not now.” He gave a bleak smile. “Unless there’s one that can be used to bind a jinn.”
“I’m afraid not.” She studied his face. “You lost the money, didn’t you?”
He forced himself to meet her resigned gaze, though he felt the familiar shame. It wasn’t the first time his gambling habit had left them deep in debt – though not to Taj.
Never to Taj.
“All of it?” she persisted when he didn’t reply.
Mortlake nodded. “Taj’s recruiters are here. But they don’t know. Not yet.”
She waited in silence.
“I managed to buy us another day, but we can’t stay in Cairo.”
“How much do you owe?”
“Half a million pounds.”
She closed her eyes, gripping the counter.
“I’ll get the damned money,” he snapped. “But it’ll take more than a day. Close up the shop and take a train to Alexandria, then a steamer for London. Can you afford a ticket?”
“I . . . I don’t think so. I just paid the rent. There’s only a few pounds left.”
Mortlake fished in his pocket and handed her some bills. “This will cover your passage.” He hesitated, then took out a small key. He pressed it into her hand. “There’s a safety deposit box at Drummond’s Bank in Charing Cross. You’ll find more money there. It isn’t much, but it will cover a hotel. Be sure to use one of your aliases.”
She nodded. “What about you?”
“I’m the only one they want,” he lied. “You’re safer on your own.”
Mortlake pushed the trinkets into the satchel and slung it over his shoulder. He strode to the door and glanced through the dirty window at the alley outside. It was empty. He left without saying goodbye or looking back, though he felt her watching.
Taj would hunt him down eventually, but his agents would be too busy to do it now. He’d get a head start. Plenty of time to make amends somehow.
He strode through the deserted bazaar, lost in dark thoughts, when a frail cry came from the shadows. “As salaam alaikum, sahib!”
Mortlake frowned and peered at the bundle of rags sprawled on the ground.
“Baksheesh,” the crooked figure implored, holding out a hand. Glittering black eyes took in Mortlake’s pale skin and European clothing. “You are English, sahib. Very good! God bless the Queen. Spare a piaster for a blind old—”
Mortlake kicked the hand away and the beggar groaned, throwing up an arm to shield his face from further blows. The necromancer strode off without a backward glance. The Khan e-Khalili was going downhill if the police permitted such scum within the walls. Perhaps the British would do something about it now that their soldiers occupied half the country. He hurried back toward the busier areas, keeping a sharp eye out for his foes, though he had a feeling it was simple bad luck that he had run into them in the first place.
Taj was his most valued customer. It had taken decades to cultivate the relationship, one that Mortlake had pissed away in a single foolish evening. Taj would never let the debt go — it was a matter of reputation – but if Mortlake paid him a princely sum in interest, he might be persuaded to offer a second chance. It would present no great difficulty to rob a few wealthy victims, though he would need to be cautious. Mortlake had his own reputation to consider. His principal buyers would be off-limits.
I’ll never gamble again, he vowed, aware it was not the first time he had made such a promise.
Mortlake resolved to catch a night train to Port Said and take a ship from there. His steps slowed as he pondered his route out of the souk. He knew the mazelike passages as well as his own face and didn’t want to risk running into Taj’s jinn again. A back way out would be best, he thought, turning into a section of the market recently ravaged by fire.
The blaze had spared a popular café but everything beyond was still being rebuilt. The smell of old smoke lingered in the air as he made for a courtyard leading out to al-Muizz Street. Mortlake raised a hand to tug at his bushy beard and it was all that saved him from the garrote that slipped around his neck.
The wire caught his wrist, snagging on bone. He gasped and clawed at his throat. Adrenaline coursed through his veins. Mortlake staggered backwards and slammed his assailant into the wall. He heard a grunt, but the garrote kept tightening. The pain was nearly unbearable. He dug his feet in and slammed the attacker against the wall twice more. The wire fell away.
Mortlake spun and stared into a pair of burning black eyes. It was the beggar. Up close, Mortlake realized he knew the man and cursed himself for not paying closer attention.
“Balthazar,” he grated.
They grappled silently, just thirty feet from the busy café where men sipped coffee and puffed on water pipes. Mortlake’s right hand burned like hellfire, but he managed to shove Balthazar away long enough to snatch his necromantic chains from the leather bag. He snapped the shackle around his own wrist and felt strength surge into him. He gripped Balthazar by the throat and lifted him off the ground, pinning him to the wall. Black lightning flickered along the chains, but Mortlake held it in check.
“Why?” he spat. “Who sent you?”
“No one,” Balthazar croaked.
Mortlake regarded him with narrowed eyes. “The rumors are true then. You stand against us.”
The reply was barely audible, his foe fighting for each breath. “I’ve always . . . stood . . . against you.”
Mortlake tightened his grip, the dark magic of the chains aching for release. He could char Balthazar to a husk. Sear him to ash. He felt the power build . . . and some instinct made him glance at the end of the alley. A veiled figure stood in the shadows, her eyes wide and terrified.
Mortlake grunted in pain as a knife flew through the air. He clutched his chest. Blood bloomed between his fingers. He saw Balthazar scrambling for the garrote where it had fallen on the ground. The heart wound was agony, but not a killing blow. Not for a necromancer.
It wasn’t too late. He could still unleash the black lightning.
John Mortlake hesitated.
An instant later, the wire loop closed around his neck and he thought no more.
The beggar yanked the shawb over his head. Beneath it, he wore a white linen shirt creased with sweat. The chain of a gold watch dangled from a tailored waistcoat.
“That was a bit close,” Balthazar muttered, his throat still raw from the necromancer’s grip.
Like Mortlake, he had thick black hair and black eyes, but the resemblance ended there. He was just as tall but leanly built, with a wolfish elegance. Balthazar looked like a man in the prime of life, but he was already old when the Romans built their first outpost along the Nile.
He kicked the filthy shawb away as a second man – the one who had thrown the knife – emerged from the shadows of a burnt-out shop. He was in his late twenties, with a bowler hat and a mustache that he wore waxed to little points. He glanced down at Mortlake’s severed head, the eyes already glazing with death.
“I warned you he wouldn’t be easy, my lord,” Lucas Devereaux replied with a hint of reproach, handing Balthazar a coat and silk top hat.
“I never said he’d be easy.” Balthazar smoothed his raven hair and adjusted the hat. He put on the coat and did up the silver buttons. “But it was better you stayed back to keep watch. We can’t have witnesses raising the alarm. I’m too well-known around here.”
The alley was still deserted, but it wouldn’t be long before someone passed by. He bent down and pressed a hidden catch on the chains, removing them from the dead man’s wrist. Balthazar stuffed them into the satchel along with the blood-soaked shawb. He rolled up the wire garrote and tossed that into the satchel, too.
Balthazar glanced at his watch with a frown. “Three minutes. Where the devil is it? I’d hate to miss supper on the terrace—” A crack began to widen in the stone between his legs. He stepped away and turned to Lucas. “Would you mind? It’s my last clean shirt until the laundry service comes back.”
“Not at all, my lord,” Lucas replied, the words infused with a soft French accent.
The smaller man drew a short sword and gripped it with two hands, peering down into the crack. A menacing growl came from the darkness below. Lucas waited. A minute later, a head and shoulders emerged. The head had long silver hair, caked with dark gore. The eyes were also silver, reflecting Lucas’s own face like dull mirrors. Raw-knuckled fingers curled around the hilt of a broadsword, also streaked with old gore.
The revenant was powerfully built and might have topped seven feet if permitted to emerge from the crevice. Lucas judged the angle and took its head off with one clean blow. It slipped soundlessly back into the crack.
He gazed at the blade with distaste. “Give me that robe again, would you?”
Balthazar thrust the satchel at him. Lucas cleaned his blade and returned it to the sheath.
“What about him?” he asked, looking at Mortlake.
Balthazar shrugged. “I don’t care who finds him once we’re gone.” His gaze turned to the darkest corner of the alley. “Over there.”
Mortlake was a large man and it took both of them to drag him behind some half-charred barrels. This task accomplished, Lucas grabbed the satchel and they hurried out of the bazaar, emerging across the street from the Al Azhar Mosque in time for the evening call to prayer. It echoed from minarets across the city, summoning the faithful who streamed through the great doors.
The mosque dated back to the Fatimid dynasty nine hundred years before. It was finally being renovated after decades of neglect by Mohamed Tewfik Pasha, the young khedive of Egypt and Sudan. The pair skirted a flimsy scaffold and strode to a carriage waiting at the end of the street next to rubble from the new construction.
“Lord Kohary.” The driver ducked his head, which was topped with a tall red fez. “Did you enjoy the market?”
“Very much,” Balthazar said with a smile. “Take us back to Shepheard’s.”
They climbed in, heading west toward the Nile Corniche. A thousand points of light shone from the mosques, which had oil lamps in glass holders suspended from the domes by chains. Balthazar watched the narrow, crooked streets roll by in silence while Lucas searched Mortlake’s satchel.
“There’s some jewelry,” he said. “Likely talismanic.”
“We’ll throw it all in the vault,” Balthazar said with a sigh. “There’s still room at the house on Lake Baikal.”
“I thought you’d be pleased.”
“No, you’re brooding, my lord.”
Balthazar fell silent for a long minute. “By all rights, I should be dead,” he said at last.
Lucas made a small noise of assent. “It’s hardly the first time.”
“Mortlake got his hand up just as the garrote fell around his neck. When he locked his chains on, I thought it was over. The black lightning was at his fingertips.” Balthazar ran a thumb over the glass face of his pocket watch. The ticking of its little clockwork heart usually soothed him. “You must have seen, Lucas. He never used it.”
Lucas’s brown eyes narrowed in thought. “That is rather interesting.”
Balthazar shot him a wry look. “Interesting? I nearly ended in a scorch mark.”
“But you didn’t, my lord. And need I remind you—”
“That you warned me not to take him alone?” Balthazar interrupted. “No, you needn’t. You’ve already reminded me several times.”
“So what’s your point?”
“I want to know why.” He tapped an index finger on the watch, which read six thirty-nine. “Tell me again what you know about John Mortlake. Everything.”
“According to my sources in London, he comes to Cairo every year between Christmas and New Year’s. Clearly some longstanding business deal, although he’s fanatically secretive about it. He deals in ancient artifacts, many of them talismans, but he’s not a collector himself, merely a middleman. He has a nose for valuable objects and an impressive roster of buyers, but he can barely hold onto a shilling of what he earns in commissions.”
“The gambling habit.”
Lucas nodded. “It’s gotten worse in recent years.”
“They tend to do that.” Balthazar paused. “The obvious reason Mortlake refrained from using black lightning is that he didn’t want to risk killing his own kin. If there’s someone he cares about—”
Lucas gave a mirthless laugh. “He was a necromancer. By definition, they care for no one but themselves.”
When Lucas was a young child, he had lost his entire family to a necromancer. More than twenty years had passed, but Balthazar knew the wound would never heal completely.
“Mortlake is still a man,” Balthazar said carefully. “He might not be immune to emotion.”
Lucas looked skeptical. “I researched him thoroughly. He’s a lone wolf.”
“Then how do you explain his hesitation?”
“Does it really matter?” Lucas sighed. “Mortlake is dead.”
“I thought you despised unanswered questions.”
“I do. But . . . .”
“I’m almost out of digestives.” This was spoken defiantly.
“My God.” Balthazar gazed at him fondly. “Surely we can find you some biscuits. This place is crawling with your countrymen.” He arched an eyebrow. “But I must insist that you eat some real food at supper tonight. You can’t live on those things. You’ll end up with scurvy.”
“Better scurvy than an intestinal parasite,” Lucas muttered darkly.
Balthazar rolled his eyes. “Anything else about Mortlake?”
“Not really. He was a member of the Duzakh, of course, but he kept to himself. I don’t know the exact year he turned, but I gather he’d been a necromancer for less than three centuries.”
“A swaddling babe,” Balthazar said dryly.
“He claimed he killed the last necromancer who owned the chains. Said he was attacked and got lucky with a sword. I have no reason to doubt it.”
“It’s rare, but it does happen,” Balthazar agreed.
Lucas paused. “There are rumors he had a contact in Arabia somewhere. Someone who provided him with a large number of very valuable talismans. But it was only that – a rumor.” He gazed at Balthazar. “You should let it go, my lord.”
Balthazar sighed. “Fine.”
“And no taking them alone anymore. It’s too risky.”
“Whatever you say.”
Balthazar signaled the driver to stop at the new Kasr-en-Nile Bridge. He and Lucas strolled past the pair of enormous stone lions on pedestals guarding the entrance and walked to the center of the iron span. A man on a bicycle rode past, but the bridge was otherwise empty. Balthazar opened the leather satchel and tossed the bloody robe into the river, where it was swallowed up by sluggish brown water.
“How many of the Duzakh are left?” he asked quietly.
“I’m not sure of the exact number.” Lucas paused. “But it’s quite a few.”
“That’s good. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if we ran out of necromancers.”
“You’d think of something, my lord.”
Balthazar smiled faintly, his teeth white in the darkness. “Well, I would, but I doubt you’d approve of it.”
As they returned to the carriage, a group of street urchins ran up with grubby hands extended, begging for baksheesh. Lucas dug into his pocket and handed out peppermint sticks. Wherever they happened to be, he always kept candy for the children.
“They’ll never leave you alone if you keep feeding them,” Balthazar remarked, eying the ragged group with distaste.
Lucas made noncommittal a sound. He’d donned a scarf and gloves even though the temperature was in the mid-sixties.
“Do you really think you can find some digestives?” he asked hopefully. “I know we’re leaving tomorrow, but I’d like some for the journey.”
“I’ll ask the desk clerk at Shepheard’s. I’ve known him for years. He can get anything within reason.”
The hotel on Ibrahim Pasha Street was famed for its opulent décor, with lush gardens and huge granite pillars resembling those of the ancient Egyptian temples. The terrace was crowded with the usual assortment of expatriates – French and British army officers, invalids and crocodile hunters, special correspondents and mummy collectors, along with sunburnt tourists in ridiculous pith helmets.
Holiday decorations adorned the date palms. The mood was festive as Balthazar and Lucas made their way to the American Bar. Lucas ordered hot water with lemon and honey, Balthazar a brandy.
“Another year gone,” he said, raising his glass with a touch of weariness. “To 1890.”
“To 1890, my lord.”
They clinked glasses. The thrill of killing Mortlake had already worn off and Balthazar felt boredom setting in. His vocation might be a righteous one, yet he was no hero. Far from it.
“I’ll put the chains in the safe with those papyri from the Valley of the Kings,” Lucas said.
“Do we have all the export permits from the Antiquities Department?”
“It was expensive, but yes. There shouldn’t be any problem at customs.” Lucas took out two passports stamped with Turkish visas and a train timetable. “Our documents are all in order, my lord. There are a few trains departing on New Year’s Day. If you have no objection, I’d like to take the early one. It gets us to Alexandria by four in the afternoon.”
He frowned. “I suppose I can manage it.”
Balthazar surveyed the lobby. A few women caught his eye and he gave them idle smiles. With any luck, he’d find a willing partner to warm his bed. It was New Year’s Eve after all. He drained the last of his brandy and set the glass down. When they reached London, he would add Mortlake’s necromantic chains to a growing collection. Talismans couldn’t be destroyed – not by him at least – but he could keep them from falling into the wrong hands.
Once it had been enough. He’d relished the hunt and taken satisfaction from ridding the world of predators who murdered the innocent. But lately Balthazar had felt . . . unmoored. Not even his brush with death seemed to matter. He wasn’t suicidal, but nor he care much about living. And that troubled him far more than Mortlake’s hesitation.
Lucas was the one bright spot. Resourceful and dedicated to the cause, he was also inherently decent despite being raised by the worst rake in Britain. Balthazar was still amazed at how well he had turned out.
Waiters were busy rearranging the furniture in the dining room for the party that night, clearing space for a temporary bar and carrying in crates of champagne. Through a fog of listlessness, Balthazar tried to remember where he had been last December 31st. Some party no doubt, although they all ran together after a while. Something to do with a museum . . . . New York? Or was that the year before?
Male heads turned in unison as a woman entered the hotel reception area through the glass doors. Her plain white dress was long and high-necked, but Balthazar’s expert eye detected the voluptuous form underneath. His fingers tightened on the edge of the bar. A wide-brimmed hat covered most of her face, but he saw a pair of lush red lips, slightly parted. Strands of dark hair had come loose from their bindings, adhering damply to her long neck.
“Dear God,” he murmured. “Her cup overfloweth.”
Lucas looked up from the train schedule. “Pardon, my lord?”
“Never mind.” Balthazar’s gaze lingered as she paused to speak to the desk clerk, then strode gracefully toward the terrace.
“Excuse me for a moment,” he said to Lucas, making a beeline for the front desk. The clerk straightened at his approach. Balthazar always tipped well, even if his requests were occasionally peculiar.
“Lord Kohary,” he said with a smile. “How may I assist you this evening?”
“That woman you just spoke to. Is she staying here?”
The clerk gave a knowing smile. “Not that I’m aware of, my lord.”
“Have you seen her before?”
“No, my lord.”
“What did she want?”
The clerk leaned forward and lowered his voice. “She asked about the Thomas Cook tours.” He pointed at a stack of brochures.
Balthazar slid a pound note across the desk. “Let me know if you see her again.”
“Of course,” the clerk murmured, smoothly pocketing the money.
“What was that about?” Lucas asked as Balthazar slid onto his barstool. “My digestives?”
The hope in his voice brought a stab of guilt.
“I thought I saw someone I knew.” He smiled weakly. “I promise I’ll ask, though.”
Lucas gazed at him with a hint of reproach. “I suppose you’re going to the party tonight.”
“Naturally. Aren’t you?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Come now, it’s New Year’s Eve.”
“I prefer a hot bath and a tonic of Epsom salts. We have an early start tomorrow.” Lucas looked pointedly at Balthazar. “Don’t drink too much.”
“Have you ever seen me intoxicated?”
“No,” Lucas conceded. “But that’s only because you have the tolerance of an elephant.”
Balthazar stared at the doors to the terrace where his prey had gone to ground.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll find something to entertain myself.”
They retired to adjoining suites on the fourth floor. Balthazar soaked in a hot bath, shaved and donned his black tie. It was after ten o’clock by the time he made his way downstairs. The party was in full swing. The women wore glittering gowns, their husbands in the usual black suits with starched white shirts. The dining room had been turned a ballroom with an orchestra. Uniformed waiters moving among the crowd with trays of sweets and glasses of champagne.
Balthazar usually adored parties. He liked to flirt and dazzle, but tonight he was on edge. Perhaps it was a residue of his uncertainty about Mortlake, or just the prospect of facing another year, another decade, another century. He’d only been half joking on the bridge. Balthazar had no idea what he would do when he ran out of necromancers to kill, and he was far from sure he deserved to live long enough to find out.
He looked around the room, but the enchanting creature from the lobby was not there. The party suddenly seemed insufferably dull. He saw a number of attractive women, yet he lacked any desire to approach them. It came as a relief when he heard his name being called.
The eminent Egyptologist Flinders Petrie and his patron, Kennard Haworth, waved him over.
“What brings you to Cairo?” Petrie asked. In his late thirties, he was ruggedly handsome with intense dark eyes and a beard just starting to show threads of grey. “Sponsoring a new excavation?”
“Just a buying trip. Some papyrus scrolls and a collection of canopic jars. I plan to donate them to the British Museum.”
Should Petrie make inquires, he would find that Balthazar spoke the truth. They knew him as a rich collector from Hungary who always traveled with his secretary. Chasing antiquities provided an ideal cover for his travels, as well as his extensive knowledge — much of which was firsthand. “And you?”
“We’ve been at Medinet el-Fayum and Hawara for the last year.”
“Hawara,” Balthazar said, lifting a glass of champagne from the tray of a passing waiter. “Late Middle Kingdom?”
Petrie nodded. “Twelfth dynasty. A pyramid and mortuary complex we’re calling the Labyrinth. Both built by Amenemhat III and dating from about 1700 B.C. to the Roman period.”
Balthazar’s interest stirred. “Didn’t Herodotus mention something about that?”
“Indeed. In Book two of the Histories, he described it as situated a little above the lake of Moiris and nearly opposite to that which is called the City of Crocodiles. Lepsius began some investigations there in ’43.”
“What did you find?”
Petrie’s dark eyes gleamed. “Among other things, a scroll that contains the first two books of The Iliad.”
“Well done,” Balthazar said with a smile.
“The labyrinth itself was demolished, I’m afraid,” Haworth added. “Probably by Ptolemy. But we found the mortuary temple intact.” He glanced at Petrie “As well as the tomb of Amenemhat’s daughter. It was secured by several nasty concealed trapdoors weighing about twenty tons each. They were undisturbed.”
“And what are your plans for next year?”
“I mean to go to the Holy Land, a site called Tell el-Hesi. The dig will be backed by the Palestine Exploration Fund.”
They talked shop for a while. Balthazar discreetly withdrew his watch and saw it was still half an hour to midnight. He suppressed a yawn. When had he become the sort of person who preferred bed over revelry? As he looked around at the flushed faces, he found he had no interest in talking to any of them.
But he refused to leave until the clock chimed midnight at least. It was a matter of pride.
Balthazar slipped the watch back into his pocket.
And then he saw her.
The loose white gown had been exchanged for clinging silver lame. Masses of dark hair piled loosely atop her head, revealing a long, slender neck. Her bare arms were rounded but strong-looking.
His companions’ words sank to a buzz as he watched her cross the room. The bodice looked like it might split down the seams if she coughed.
Adrenaline flooded his veins. Balthazar’s pupils dilated.
“Lord Kohary?” Petrie asked.
“Pardon?” he murmured.
“How long will you be staying?”
Balthazar tore his eyes away from the rapturous vision. “I leave tomorrow. Would you excuse me for a moment?”
The men exchanged startled glances at his abrupt departure, but Balthazar barely noticed. He strode through the crowd, trying to keep her in view. She wore a solemn, inward expression as though lost in thought. Balthazar lost her for a moment as she passed the dancefloor and orchestra. He paused, heart pounding, and caught a brief flash of silver leaving through the French doors. Balthazar pushed through the dense knot of people around the bar, ignoring mutters of protest, and stepped out to the terrace.
She stood alone at the far end, gloved hands braced on the balustrade. A few people occupied the outdoor tables, but the evening was cool and most had stayed inside. Balthazar stopped in the shadow of a potted date palm and studied her for a moment. She had an aura of melancholy that only increased his ardor – and curiosity. Why had she come here tonight if not to celebrate?
When she withdrew a packet of cigarettes from her handbag, he saw his opening. Balthazar strolled down the terrace and stopped next to her. They were almost the same height.
“Good evening,” he said politely.
She turned and met his gaze with a directness that was rare for an upper-class woman of this time and place. Balthazar withdrew a box of matches from his pocket.
He leaned in and lit her cigarette. She wore a hint of some musky perfume. Blood pounded in his ears.
“Thank you,” she murmured, exhaling a stream of smoke.
Up close, she was not what the English would call beautiful. Her features were too strong, her eyebrows too thick, her nose too bold, her skin a shade too olive. Her accent was clipped British, but with a faint trace of the East. And her voice was a lovely alto, just a bit husky. His infatuation deepened.
Balthazar bowed at the waist. “I am Count Kohary.” He smiled. “The title is nominal, but I still exploit it shamelessly.”
She held out a hand. He raised the gloved fingers to his lips.
“Mrs. Fitzwalter. Do you smoke?”
She offered him the packet of Kyriazi Freres, an Egyptian brand. Balthazar rarely indulged, but accepted so he had an excuse to linger. She studied him frankly as he cupped the flame. She was older than he’d first thought, early thirties. Perfect.
“I saw you looking at the travel brochures,” he said.
She turned away and gazed out at the gardens. “My husband booked a Nile cruise with Thomas Cook.”
“You don’t seem enthusiastic.”
Mrs. Fitzwalter gave him a forced smile. “I’m sure it will be very charming.”
Balthazar leaned against the balustrade. “I collect antiquities myself. Fund a few digs here and there.”
Interest sparked in her eyes. “Where?”
“Alexandria was the last one. We found a trove of items belonging to Ptolemy. Are you interested in archaeology?”
“My father is a history professor at Oxford,” she said. “Greece and Rome are his primary interests. I suppose his love of the ancients rubbed off on me. I visited the museum in Giza yesterday.” She smiled. “Of course, the most valuable items are all in England now. Are you one of those who come to plunder our heritage, Count Kohary?”
“I donate to museums all over the world, provided they have the proper facilities to preserve the artifacts.” He glanced at her. “So you are Egyptian?’
“Half. On my mother’s side. We left when I was a child.”
“Do you come back often?”
She shook her head. “Sadly, no. The holiday was my husband’s idea.”
She glanced past his shoulder down the length of the terrace. It was the third time in the last five minutes.
“Are you expecting someone?” he asked. “I don’t wish to intrude.”
The thought that she might be meeting a lover sent a stab of jealousy through his chest.
“No, but my husband dislikes it when I speak to strange men,” she said frankly. “Especially when they are young and fair.”
Well, that pleased him, although the word “fair” made him think of a buxom milkmaid.
“Husbands generally do,” Balthazar replied with a lazy smile.
She didn’t smile back. Her eyes were wary.
“What’s the matter?” he asked with a frown.
She shook her head. “It’s nothing—”
“No.” He stabbed his unsmoked cigarette into the sand of an ashtray. “You look afraid.”
She didn’t reply, but he heard her breath hitch.
“You can trust me,” he said gently. “Perhaps I can help.”
“We’ve only just met,” she said with an edge of amusement.
She’d rallied. Not a shrinking violet, though he didn’t imagine she would be.
“Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a stranger,” he said. “I can assure you, my intentions are entirely honorable.” The lie spilled smoothly from his tongue.
Mrs. Fitzwalter hesitated. Then she laid a hand on his sleeve and drew him over to the French doors. They were concealed by a date palm, but had a view through the fronds into the party. She scanned the crowd.
She tilted her chin at a group of British officers gathered near the bar. They were in dress uniform, crimson coats with silver braid and high collars. Most wore bushy side whiskers and they looked deep into their cups.
“Far left,” she replied glumly. “White hair and a red nose.”
The man was old enough to be her grandfather. Balthazar felt pity for her.
“Not a love match, I take it,” he said dryly.
She finished her cigarette in silence.
“I know the question is rather forward—” he began.
“It’s all right. I was born in Alexandria. My father taught at the university there. My mother and I were very happy, but my father wanted to return to England. We emigrated when I was twelve After I’d finished my schooling, I resisted marriage for as long as possible.” Her jaw set. “None of the suitors were to my taste. It made my father very angry. When I turned twenty-eight, he said he would not allow me to remain a burdensome spinster. Within a month, they’d married me off to that old goat.”
“More or less. I was given the choice of wedding Colonel Fitzwalter or entering a nunnery.”
Balthazar suppressed a shudder at the idea of this spirited woman cloistered away in a convent. She belonged in his bed, naked, hair fanned out across a silken pillow—
“That was three years ago.” She sighed. “I could tolerate it if he was a kind man. But he isn’t, Lord Kohary. He keeps me isolated in the countryside. I have no friends. No one to confide in.”
Balthazar turned to face her. “If I might be so forward,” he murmured, “you have a friend now.”
She smiled sadly. “That’s sweet of you. But I don’t see what you can do about my situation.”
“Jealous husbands don’t scare me.”
“Yes, well, you don’t have to sleep with them every night, do you?”
Deep bitterness tinged her voice. “Does he hurt you?” Balthazar asked quietly.
She didn’t answer.
He felt a surge of outrage. There was little in the world he despised more than wife-beaters. “Times are changing. You can demand a divorce. To hell with your father—”
“Stop,” she said firmly. “I’ve gone too far. This is an entirely inappropriate conversation. The fault for that is mine. Please forgive me. But I think you must go now.”
He gazed down at her. “There is no fault,” he said at last. “And nothing to forgive.”
She nodded. A delicate pink flush crested her cheeks. “Thank you.”
“But it’s an odd coincidence that you plan to journey up the Nile. I’ve always wanted to make the trip myself.”
She froze. Alarm flashed across her features. “Oh, you mustn’t.”
“Because . . . because he’ll kill me if he knows we’ve spoken!”
“Why would he know if no one tells him?”
She drew herself up. Her black eyes flashed with sudden anger. “I’m grateful for your sympathy, but I can take care of myself.”
“No one said you couldn’t.”
They stood very close. Her chest swelled as she struggled to breathe through the tight bodice of her gown.
“Tell me your name,” he said raggedly. “Not his name. Your name.”
She tugged a glove off and touched his lips with bare fingers. Balthazar’s throat went dry.
Beyond the glass doors, the crowd started chanting the ten-second countdown to midnight.
Balthazar seized her hand and pressed her wrist to his mouth. He felt her pulse beat against his lips. It was strong and fierce. Bursting with life. Their eyes locked. His knees weakened with a wave of desire unlike anything he’d experienced in . . . oh, centuries.
“Goodbye, Lord Kohary,” she whispered.
Mrs. Fitzwalter tore her hand away and vanished through the French doors in a swirl of silver lame.
“Happy New Year!”
Merry cheers erupted from inside. Horns tooted. Glasses clinked.
Balthazar simply stood there, gobsmacked.
He didn’t try to pursue. It would be madness with her husband inside. But he knew he had to save her. And after he saved her, he would seduce her.
Or possibly before.
But he knew one thing for certain.
He absolutely could not go back to England and forget about her.
He laughed like a madman, loud enough to draw curious stares from the revelers on the terrace. Balthazar strode inside. He seized a glass of champagne from a startled gentleman in a tuxedo and tossed it back in one gulp.
“To 1890!” he cried.
The fellow grinned amiably. “Hear, hear!”
His friends raised their glasses and bellowed a drunken toast.
Balthazar clapped the man on the shoulder and strode through the ballroom, making for the front desk.
“Abdul!” he bellowed.
The sleepy clerk looked up with alarm. “My lord?”
“Book a passage on that Cook cruise, will you?” Balthazar dropped a wad of bills on the desk. “Two cabins, first class.”
Abdul blinked. “Certainly, my lord.”
“And give me one of those brochures.”
He leafed through it as he paced to the lift with a new spring in his step.