The Nile was high, brown, and powerful. It was October, the year’s peak flood, and we were approaching the date the circular calendar seemed to suggest. We stole a small boat and set off down the river, headed back for the Great Pyramid that Monge had suggested must be the key to the riddle. I’d give it a last crack, and if we couldn’t puzzle it out I’d just keep going to the Mediterranean. Whether the strange woman beside me would follow, I had no idea.
By the time the sun rose we were miles from Desaix’s army, drifting with the current. I might have relaxed except that I saw a French courier galloping along the river bank, spying us and then cutting inland on a shortcut while we took the river’s looping bends. No doubt he was carrying word of our escape. I lowered the boom to set the lateen sail, giving us even more speed, the boat leaning with the wind and water hissing as I tacked. We passed a yawning crocodile, prehistoric and hideous. Water glistened on his scales, and yellow eyes looked at us with reptilian contemplation. After Silano, he seemed an improvement in company.
What a pair we made, I in Arab costume and Astiza in temptress regalia, sprawled on the muddy floorboards of a small felucca that stank of fish. She’d said little since we reunited, gazing over the Nile and fingering the medallion she’d draped around her own neck with an air of ownership. I hadn’t asked for it back.
‘I came a long way to find you,’ I finally said.
‘You followed the star of Isis.’
‘But you weren’t chained as you pretended.’
‘No. Nothing was as it seemed. I fooled him, and you.’
‘You knew Silano before?’
She sighed. ‘He was a master and lover who turned to darker arts. He believed Egypt’s magic was as real as Berthollet’s chemistry and that he, following in the footsteps of Cagliostro and Kolmer, could find occult secrets here. He cared nothing for the world, only for himself, because he was bitter over what he’d lost in the Revolution. When I realised how selfish he was, we had a falling-out. I fled to Alexandria and found sanctuary with a new master, the guardian. Silano’s dreams were shallow. Alessandro wanted Egypt’s secrets to make him powerful, even immortal, so I played a double game.’
‘Did he buy you from Yusuf?’
‘Yes. It was a bribe to the old lecher.’
‘Yusuf’s hospitality was not entirely selfless. I needed to get away from there.’ She saw my look. ‘Don’t worry, he didn’t touch me.’
‘So you went with your old lover.’
‘You hadn’t come back from the pyramids. Silano told me he hadn’t found you at Enoch’s. Going with the count was the only way to make progress in solving the mystery. I knew nothing of Dendara, and neither did you. That place had been forgotten for centuries. I told Alessandro you had the medallion, and then left you a message of where to find it in the harem. We both knew you’d come after us. And then I rode freely, because the French would have asked too many questions if I’d been bound.’
Alessandro! I didn’t like the familiarity of a first name. ‘And then you brought a temple down on him.’
‘He believes in his own charm, like you.’
As did she, toying with both of us as a means to her end. ‘You asked me what I believed in, Astiza. Who do you believe in?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You helped Silano because you want the secret too.’
‘Of course. But to safeguard it, not ransom it to some greedy tyrant like Bonaparte. Can you imagine that man with an army of immortals? At its peak, Egypt was defended by an army of just twenty thousand men, and seemed impregnable. Then something seemed to happen, something was lost, and invasions began.’
‘Going with the men who murdered Talma…’
‘Silano knew things I did not. I knew things he did not. Could you have found the temple of Dendara that we came from by yourself? We didn’t know which temple Enoch’s books referred to, but Silano did after his studies in Rome and Constantinople and Jerusalem. We would never have found the other arms of the medallion by ourselves, just as Silano could not complete the medallion without you and Enoch. You had some clues and the count had others. The gods brought us all together.’
‘The gods, or the Egyptian Rite? Gypsies didn’t tell you I was coming to Egypt.’
She looked away. ‘I couldn’t tell you the truth because you’d misunderstand. Alessandro lied and sent word that you’d stolen the medallion from him. I pretended to help so I could use him. You survived our assassination attempt. Then Enoch persuaded Ashraf to try to find us in the battle – you, the man in a green coat, who conveniently stood up on an artillery caisson – so that he could see this medallion all were so curious about. Everything that happened was supposed to, except poor Talma’s death.’
My mind was whirling. Maybe I was naive. ‘So we’re all just tools for you – me for the medallion, Silano for his occult knowledge? No different, here to be used?’
‘I did not fall in love with Silano.’
‘I didn’t say you were in love with him, I said…’ I stopped. She was looking away from me, rigid, trembling, her long fine hair blowing in the warm wind that kicked up little wavelets on the river. Not in love? With him. Did that mean that perhaps my pursuit had not gone unnoticed, my charm not entirely unappreciated, my good intentions not misunderstood? But then how much did I feel about her now? I wished to have her, yes, but to love her? I didn’t even know her, it seemed. And love was truly dangerous ground for a man like me, a prospect more daunting than a Mameluke charge or a naval broadside. It meant believing in something, committing to more than a moment. What did I really feel toward this woman who’d seemed to betray me but perhaps had not?
‘What I mean is, I haven’t loved anyone else either,’ I stumbled. Not the most eloquent of replies. ‘That is, I’m not even sure love exists.’
She was exasperated. ‘How do you know electricity exists, Ethan?’
‘Well.’ That was actually a damned good question, since it seemed naturally invisible. ‘By sparks, I suppose. You can feel it. Or a lightning bolt.’
‘Exactly.’ Now she was looking at me, smiling like a sphinx, enigmatic, unapproachable, except that now the door had been opened and all I had to do was step through it. What had Berthollet surmised about my character? That I had not realised my potential? Now here was a chance to grow up, to commit not to an idea, but to a person.
‘I don’t even know what side you’re on,’ I stalled.
‘I’m on our side.’
Which side was that? And then, before our conversation could get to some kind of agreeable conclusion, the crack of a gun echoed across the river.
We looked downstream. A felucca was sailing toward us, its rigging taut, deck thick with men. Even at a distance of three hundred metres, I could recognise the bandaged arm of Achmed bin Sadr. By all the tea in China, could I not get clear of this man? I hadn’t felt so weary of someone’s company since Franklin had John Adams to dinner and I had to hear his irascible opinions on half the politicians in the United States.
We had no weapons except my tomahawk, and no chance, so I put the rudder over and made for shore. Perhaps we could find a cliffside tomb to hide in. But no, now a squadron of red-and-blue-jacketed hussars was spilling down a hill to the bank to greet us. French cavalry! Had I even got twenty miles?
Well, better them than Bin Sadr. They’d take me to Bonaparte, while the Arab would do things to Astiza and me that I didn’t even want to think about. When we met Napoleon, Astiza could simply claim I’d kidnapped her, and I’d confirm it. I considered grabbing the medallion from her pretty neck and hurling it into the Nile, but couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’d invested too much. Besides, I was as curious about what it might lead to as anyone. It was our only map to the Book of Thoth.
‘You’d best hide that,’ I told her.
She slipped it between her breasts.
We grounded on a sandbank and splashed ashore. Bin Sadr’s felucca was still working its way against the current toward our position, the Arabs shouting and firing into the air. The dozen French horsemen had spread into a semicircle to close with us, preventing any chance of escape, and I raised my hands in surrender. Soon we were ringed with dusty horses.
‘At your service, lieutenant.’
‘Why are you dressed like a heathen?’
His eyes kept straying to Astiza, not daring to ask why she was dressed as a harlot. In 1798, there were still some manners left. ‘I am Lieutenant Henri d’Bonneville. You are under arrest for theft of state property and destruction of antiquities, for murder, trespass, and disorder in Cairo, and for escape, evasion, misrepresentation, spying, and treason.’
‘Not murder at Dendara? We did kill Silano, I hope.’
He stiffened. ‘The count is recovering from his injuries and is organising a party to join our pursuit.’
‘You did forget kidnapping.’ I nodded at Astiza.
‘I did not forget. The woman, having been rescued, will cooperate in the prosecution or be interrogated herself.’
‘It’s the charge of treason I take exception to,’ I said. ‘I’m American. Wouldn’t I have to be French to betray your country?’
‘Sergeant, bind them both.’
The pursuing felucca grounded and Bin Sadr and his remaining band of cutthroats stormed ashore, pushing past the French cavalry horses like traders at a camel bazaar. ‘This one is mine!’ the Arab snarled, shaking his snake-headed staff. I saw with some satisfaction that his left arm was in a sling. Well, if I couldn’t kill the rotten pair outright, then maybe I could peck away at them, like the French were doing to Nelson.
‘I see you’ve become a sailor, Achmed,’ I greeted. ‘Fall off your camel?’
‘He will come on my boat!’
‘I’m afraid I must disagree, monsieur,’ Lieutenant d’Bonneville said. ‘The fugitive Gage surrendered to my cavalry and is wanted for questioning by French authorities. He is under army jurisdiction now.’
‘The American killed some of my men!’
‘Which you can take up with him when we’re done, if there’s anything left to address.’
Well, there was a cheery thought.
Bin Sadr scowled. Now he had a boil on his other cheek, and I wondered if he simply had a bad complexion or if Astiza had been up to more mischief. Any chance she could give the devil leprosy, or maybe the plague?
‘Then we take the woman.’ His men nodded in wicked agreement.
‘I think not, monsieur.’ The lieutenant gave a quick glance to his sergeant, who in turn flashed a look to his men. The carbines that had been aimed at me swung in the direction of Bin Sadr’s gang. Their muskets in turn tilted toward the French cavalry. It was a considerable relief not to have everyone aiming at me, and I tried to think how I could take advantage of it.
‘Do not make me your enemy, Frenchman,’ Bin Sadr growled.
‘You are a paid mercenary with no authority,’ d’Bonneville crisply replied. ‘If you don’t get back in your boat this instant, I will arrest you for insubordination and consider whether to hang you as well.’ He glanced about imperiously. ‘That is, if I can find a tree.’
There was a long moment of awful silence, the sun so intense it seemed to make a background sizzle. Then one of the cavalrymen coughed, jerking, and as he sagged we heard the report of the distant shot that had killed him, echoing off the Nile hills. Then more gunshots sounded, and one of Bin Sadr’s men grunted and went down.
Now all the guns swung to the ridge above the river. A line of men had crested and spilt down it, robes billowing, lances sparkling. It was a company of Mamelukes! We’d been caught by a unit of the elusive Murad Bey, and it looked like they outnumbered the lot of us, five to one.
‘Dismount!’ d’Bonneville cried. ‘Form a skirmish line!’ He turned to the Arabs. ‘Form with us!’
But the Arabs were running for their felucca, clambering on board, and shoving off into the Nile.
‘Bin Sadr, you damned coward!’ d’Bonneville roared.
The Arab’s gesture was obscene.
So now the Frenchmen turned alone to the Mameluke assault. ‘Fire!’ The lieutenant’s cry brought a ragged volley of cavalry carbines, but this was no disciplined salvo from a French infantry square. A few Mamelukes tumbled and then they overran us. I waited for the thrust of a lance, wondering what the gambling odds were to encounter three enemies on one patch of riverbank at one time: the ill-fortuned opposite of a face-card triplet in a high-stakes game of brelan, I supposed. Then the Mameluke I expected would kill me leant from his saddle, arm outstretched, and plucked me off the ground like a grape. I yelped, but his arm was a vise round my chest. He hurtled on through the French ranks straight toward the Arab boat, warbling a war cry as I dangled, sword held high in his other hand while he steered his mount with his knees. ‘Now I avenge my brother! Stand and fight, viper!’
It was Ashraf!
We crashed into the shallows, water spraying, and Bin Sadr turned to meet us from the bow of his boat, one-armed as well. Ash swung and the snake-headed staff came up to meet him. There was a clang, like steel upon steel, and I realised the staff had some kind of metal core. The fury of the Mameluke’s charge shoved the Arab backward with a grunt, but as he fell among his fellows the others fired and Ash was forced to swerve. The boat drifted into deeper water. Then we were galloping away, even as shouts, cries, and shots sounded from the battle behind. I was slung over the saddle like a bag of wheat, the wind knocked out of me, and I could barely see back through our dust. The officer who’d saved us was already down, I glimpsed, a Mameluke crouched over him with a knife. Another hussar was crawling with a lance jutting from his back, trying to slice an enemy’s throat before dying himself. Capture was worse than death, and the soldiers were selling their lives as dearly as they could. Bin Sadr’s Arabs were drifting farther out into the river, not even bothering to shoot in support.
We galloped up a long dune and stopped at its crest, overlooking the Nile. Ash released his grip and I dropped to my feet. As I staggered for balance, his grin had an edge of pain to it.
‘Always I am having to rescue you, my friend. At some point my debt from the Battle of the Pyramids will be repaid.’
‘It has been more than paid already,’ I wheezed, watching as another horse galloped up and Astiza, slung like I was, her hair drooping down, was unceremoniously dropped by another warrior. I looked down at the river. The little skirmish had ended, the Frenchmen sprawled and still. Bin Sadr had raised sail and was making his way upriver toward Desaix and Dendara, probably to report my likely massacre. I had a hunch the bastard would claim my supposed killing for himself. Silano, however, would want to make sure.
‘So you have joined the bey,’ I said.
‘Murad is going to win, sooner or later.’
‘Those were good men just slain.’
‘As my good friends were slaughtered at the pyramids. War is where good men die.’
‘How did you find us?’
‘I joined my people and trailed you, figuring Bin Sadr would as well. You do have a knack for trouble, American.’
‘And for getting out of it, thanks to you.’ Now I saw a stain of red on his robes. ‘You’ve been wounded!’
‘Bah! Another scratch from a nest of snakes, enough to keep me from finishing the coward, yes, but not enough to kill me.’ Yet he was leaning now, clearly hurt. ‘Someday I will catch him alone, and then we’ll see who is scratched. Or perhaps fate has another misery in store for him. I can hope.’
‘You need to get that dressed!’
‘Let me look at it,’ Astiza said.
He stiffly dismounted, breathing shallowly and embarrassed as the woman sliced open the robe at his torso to inspect the damage.
‘The ball passed through your side as if you were a ghost, but you’re losing blood. Here, we’ll use your turban to bind it. This is a serious wound, Ashraf. You’re not going to be riding for a while, unless you’re anxious to get to paradise.’
‘And leave you two fools alone?’
‘Maybe that, too, the gods intended. Ethan and I must finish this.’
‘If I leave him for a moment he puts himself in peril!’
‘I’ll look after him, now.’
Ashraf considered. ‘Yes, you will.’ Then he whistled. Two fine Arabian mounts came trotting over the rise, saddled and with manes and tails flouncing. They were better horses than I’d ever had. ‘Take these, then, and give a prayer for the men who recently rode them. Here is a sword from Murad Bey, Gage. If any Mamelukes try to take you, show it and they will leave you alone.’ He glanced at Astiza. ‘Are you going back to the pyramids?’
‘That’s where Egypt begins and ends,’ she said.
‘Ride hard, for the French and their Arabs will be after you soon enough. Safeguard the magic you bear or destroy it, but don’t let it fall into the hands of your enemies. Here, a robe against the sun.’ He gave her a cape, then turned to me. ‘Where’s your famous rifle?’
‘Silano stuck his sword in it.’
He looked puzzled.
‘It was the oddest thing. Jammed his rapier down the barrel, and I was so angry that I pulled the trigger and my oldest friend blew up. Served him right when Astiza pulled a roof down on him, but the bastard survived.’
Ashraf shook his head. ‘He has the luck of the demon god Ras al-Ghul. And someday, friend, when the French are gone, you and I will sit and try to make sense of what you just said!’ He painfully mounted and slowly rode down to meet the others, amid the wreckage and the bodies of war.
We galloped north as he instructed, following the river. It would be more than two hundred miles back to the pyramids. There were satchels of bread, dates, and water on the horses, but by sunset we were exhausted from travel and tension, having had no sleep the night before. We stopped at a small village by the Nile and were given shelter in the simple hospitality Egyptians habitually display, falling asleep before we could finish our dinner. The charity we were shown was astounding, given that these people were taxed unmercifully by the Mamelukes and looted by the French. Yet what little these poor peasants had they shared with us, and after we fell asleep they covered us with their own thin blankets, after dressing the cuts and scratches we’d received. As we’d instructed, we were roused two hours before first light and pushed north again.
The second night found us sore but somewhat more recovered, and we took our own private shelter in a riverside orchard of palms away from houses, humans, or dogs. We needed some time to ourselves. Since the attack of the Mamelukes we’d seen no forces from either side, just timeless villages in their timeless cycle. The inhabitants were working from reed rafts because the risen Nile had flooded their fields, bringing fresh silt from the mysterious centre of Africa.
I used some flint and Ash’s sword to make a fire. As the night deepened, the nearness of the rolling Nile seemed reassuring, a promise that life would go on. Both of us were in shock from the events of the past days and weeks, and we sensed this interlude of quiet wouldn’t last long. Somewhere to the south, Bin Sadr and Silano were no doubt discovering that we weren’t dead and starting their pursuit. So we were grateful for the quiet of the stars, the cushioning embrace of sand, and the lamb and fruit we’d been given by the last village.
Astiza had taken the medallion out again to wear, and I had to admit it looked better on her than me. I’d decided I trusted her, because she could have warned Silano of my tomahawk, or fled from me with the talisman after the pillars came down, or left me after the river fight. She hadn’t, and I remembered what she’d said on the boat: that she hadn’t loved him. I’d been turning the phrase over in my head ever since, but still wasn’t sure what to do with it.
‘You’re not certain exactly what secret door we’re looking for?’ I asked her instead.
She smiled sadly. ‘I’m not even sure it should, or can, be found. And yet why would Isis allow us to come this far, if not for a reason?’
In my experience, God didn’t care much about reasons, but I didn’t say that. Instead, I gathered up my courage. ‘I’ve already found my secret,’ I said.
Even by the light of the fire I could see her blush as she turned away. So I put my hand to her cheek and turned her back toward me.
‘Listen, Astiza, I’ve had a lot of hard desert miles to think. The sun had the breath of a lion, and the sand burnt through my boots. There were days when Ashraf and I lived on mud and fried locusts. Yet I didn’t think of that. I thought of you. If this Book of Thoth is a book of wisdom, maybe it would simply say to find what you already have, and to enjoy this day instead of worrying about the next one.’
‘That doesn’t sound like my restless wanderer.’
‘The truth of the matter is, I fell in love with you, too,’ I confessed. ‘Almost from the very beginning, when I pulled the wreckage off you and saw you were a woman. It was just hard to admit to myself.’ And I kissed her, foreigner though I was, and damn if she didn’t kiss back, more greedily than I expected. There’s nothing like surviving a scrape or two to bring a man and woman together.
Isis, it turns out, is not as prudish a god as some of the more modern ones, and Astiza seemed to have as good an idea of what she wanted as I did. If the medallion looked fine on her tattered harem clothes, it looked positively glorious on her breast and belly, so we let the moon clothe us, made a little bed of our meagre things, and lived for this night as if another might never come.
The trinket did prick when it got between us, so she took it off and left it for a time in the sand. Her skin was as perfect as the sculpted desert, her scent as sweet as the holy lotus. There is more sacred mystery in the soul and presence of a woman than in any dusty pyramid. I worshipped her like a shrine and explored her like a temple, and she whispered in my ear, ‘This, for one night, is immortality.’
Later, lying on her back, she let the medallion’s chain curl on her fingers and pointed to the sky and its crescent moon. ‘Look,’ she said. ‘The knife of Thoth.’