In Which a Three-Cup Problem Is Expounded
Kit woke from the first deep and restful sleep he had known in weeks. He lay for a while listening to the sound of water slapping gently against the hull of the dahabiya-such a serenely peaceful sound. Rousing himself, he sat up and realised that the boat was moving. Wearing the nightshirt the doctor had given him, he crept from his room and up the companion way to the deck above. It was almost dawn, and the captain was taking the boat upriver. Luxor was behind them already, and ahead, only the green banks of the Nile with date palms and fields of flowering sesame on either side.
“Good morning, my friend!” called a voice from the raised quarterdeck at the stern of the boat. “Fancy a drop of tea?”
“Don’t mind if I do,” Kit answered. Moving to the steps leading to the higher deck, he saw Thomas, in a silk dressing gown, enthroned in a large rattan chair with a gently steaming mug between his hands. On a low table beside his chair was Wilhelmina’s letter. Kit joined him, drawing up another of the rattan chairs from its place at the rail.
“I do my best thinking this time of day,” Thomas told him. “Cooler, more conducive to clear thoughts.” He removed the cosy from a painted ceramic pot, poured another mug, and passed it to Kit. “Whenever I am faced with an intractable problem, I find tea helps concentrate my mind.”
“Nothing like the first cup in the morning,” agreed Kit. “Is there milk?”
“In the jug. Please, help yourself.” As Kit poured, he added, “It’s camel milk, by the way.”
Kit took an exploratory sip-sweet and mildly nutty, he decided, but wholly acceptable. The two men drank in silence for a moment, watching the riverbank slowly slide by beneath a sky the colour of rose petals. After a while the doctor said, “I have been awake half the night thinking about your problem.”
Mehmet the steward came with a fresh pot of tea and took away the old one. The doctor refreshed their cups, settled back in his chair, and said, “What are you prepared to tell me about this artefact we hope to find in the tomb?”
Kit thought for a moment. “You know about ley travel-as described by Wilhelmina.”
“Interdimensional transportation, yes.” Young became keen. His steel glasses flashed in the early-morning light. “That is an area I intend delving into in far greater depth, but for purposes of this present discussion we will consider it amply demonstrated.” He took a sip of tea. “Continue.”
“Well, the phenomenon was discovered, or at least actively pursued, by a man named Arthur Flinders-Petrie, who roamed around exploring the various ley connections and their destinations. He recorded his findings on a map.”
“A very prudent fellow,” approved the doctor. “I like him already.”
“In order to preserve the map and, I suppose, have it ready in any circumstance, he had it tattooed on his body.” Kit ran a hand over his chest and torso. “That way, the map was permanent and could never be lost.”
“They call it the Skin Map, and it takes the form of a very sophisticated symbol code. I have seen some of the symbols, but I don’t know how to read them yet.”
“You have seen this map of skin?”
“Not exactly-I mean, I have seen an imitation of it. My great-grandfather, Cosimo-he had found a portion of the map and kept it under lock and key. But when we went to look at it, we found someone had stolen the original and substituted a poor copy instead. The copy was worthless.”
“You said it was only a piece,” Thomas pointed out. “Do you mean that the map has been apportioned in some way?”
“It has,” confirmed Kit. “Cosimo thought the original map had been divided into at least four pieces. Why it was divided, and who divided it, we have no idea. There was a suggestion that it was cut up to protect the original secret of the map in some way, but I don’t think anybody really knows. Nevertheless, in the years Cosimo spent in the chase, he succeeded in finding one piece. I never learned how.”
“A pity.” Thomas drained his tea and reached to pour another. “I can see this is going to require at least one more cup.”
Kit held out his cup for a refill. “But the map is only the beginning.”
“Thing is”-Kit grew earnest-“Flinders-Petrie found something-something incredibly, unimaginably valuable-a treasure of some sort he kept hidden from the rest of the world.”
“Truly,” breathed the doctor, wholly caught up in the tale. “As if the secret of ley travel were not enough!”
Kit nodded solemnly. “Cosimo pledged himself to discovering that treasure, and it killed him in the end. As I’ve explained, we’re not the only ones looking for the map.” He went on to tell more about Lord Burleigh, Earl of Sutherland, and his men, describing how they always showed up at just the wrong time, what they were like, and what he knew about them. He ended his account, saying, “Unfortunately, bad as they are, they aren’t the only ones in competition for the map. After all, someone stole Cosimo’s portion of the map, and it wasn’t the Burley Men.”
The doctor was silent for a long moment, then said, “Am I to take it that the object we hope to find in the tomb is, in fact, a piece of the map?”
“Nothing less,” confirmed Kit. “Cosimo and Sir Henry gave their lives to the quest. The map is part of it, and I have pledged myself to carry on their work. It’s as simple as that.”
Thomas Young pondered what had been said for a moment, then replied, “The scientist in me is begging for confirmation. Can any of this tale of the map be proven factually?”
“I think,” ventured Kit, “that when we excavate the tomb, we’ll find the factual confirmation you need-providing the map exists in this present reality, of course. We won’t know that until we look.”
Thomas considered this. “Please, do not misunderstand. I believe you implicitly. The proofs already in evidence are enough to swing the balance in your favour…” He waved a hand at the letter on the table. “That, along with the stamp, the coin, the pages from my book of essays which have yet to be published… these have more than satisfied me.” Thomas leaned forward, his voice rising with excitement. “But see here, the implications of what you have shown me-and what we hope to learn from the tomb-are nothing short of world-shattering. If confirmed, this discovery leads directly to a radical new understanding of the universe.”
“You’re telling me,” said Kit quietly, but the scientist was not finished enthusing about the connotations of a universe full of multiple alternative worlds.
“This is perhaps the greatest scientific discovery of all time. We must begin a systematic study of ley travel and determine its driving mechanisms.” He raised a finger in the air as if lecturing. “That is of utmost importance, for when we have gained a thorough mastery of that, we will have gone a very long way towards unravelling the mysteries of the universe-time, space, reality…” He smiled as a new thought occurred to him. “Perhaps even the very nature of existence itself.”
Kit was all for advancing scientific knowledge, but allowed himself a slight frown. “It starts with getting our hands on the map.”
“To that end, I will underwrite the venture with funds I have at my discretion. All I ask is to plot and catalogue the find, and to requisition any objects of special interest for further study.”
“Be my guest,” said Kit. “Just so long as we secure the map, I’ll be happy.”
While the two continued their discussion, Mehmet appeared on the quarterdeck to say that the captain required Kit’s direction in locating the village.
“There are five settlements on the west bank of the river,” Mehmet said. “The captain wishes to know which is the one you seek.”
Kit thought for a moment. “The third, I think. I remember passing two as we came downriver. But I’ll know it when I see it.”
“We are coming to the first one now,” said the steward.
Kit rose and went to the rail. He saw tall date palms, their spindly trunks high above a collection of low mud-brick hovels. Women were washing at the water’s edge, their children playing in the shallows. Atop the bank, two men loaded a donkey to twice its height with new green rushes, and another led a buffalo along the path to pasture while dogs barked at his heels.
“This isn’t the place,” Kit announced after a quick survey.
Mehmet relayed the message to the captain, and then announced that breakfast would be served. Kit and the doctor returned to the main deck where, beneath a striped canopy, a table had been set up and places laid. “I hope you are as hungry as I am,” called Thomas. “We must eat a hearty breakfast if we are going into the desert today. It will be too hot to eat until after sundown.”
They enjoyed a good breakfast of fruit and sweet breads, tiny red sausages spiced with paprika and onions, yoghurt, and coffee. While they were eating, the boat approached another riverside settlement, which after a cursory inspection Kit decided was not the right village. “Third time’s a charm,” he said, returning to the table.
They finished their meal as the boat rounded a slight bend and the next hamlet hove into view. He saw the well and the stone steps leading down to the river’s edge. He saw the boat that had taken him downriver to Luxor. “This is the one!” declared Kit from the rail. He pointed to the tallest structure in the village. “There is Khefri’s house.”
The captain brought the boat to moor, and the crew put out the gangplank. “Ready?” asked Thomas, donning his white straw hat.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” replied Kit.
“Then lead the way.”
Down the gangplank, up the bank, and into the village where, thanks to Khefri and his father, Ramesses, the requisite negotiations for labourers and animals were begun. By the time the sun was standing directly overhead, the expedition had swelled to respectable proportions with the acquisition of four donkeys, two mules, and six additional workers to undertake the excavations. They then set about assembling the necessary provisions for the men and animals. Khefri had wangled himself a job as overseer and interpreter for the workers, and took his new role with a seriousness that Thomas admired. While Kit and Thomas stood in the shade of a date palm, the young Egyptian organised the party and supervised the packing.
By the time all was ready, the sun had long since begun its descent into the west. Ramesses, who had done quite well out of the negotiations, invited Kit and Thomas to supper. They spent another night aboard the boat, and set off the next morning with Kit and Khefri leading the way.
“All I know,” Kit confided to his new colleague a few minutes after setting off, “is that the tomb is in a wadi to the west of here-beyond the ruined temple.” He glanced at Khefri. “You know the temple?”
“Of course. But there are many wadis,” Khefri told him. “It is not possible to know which one you mean.”
“I was afraid you’d say that.” Kit thought for a moment. “This particular wadi is very large and splits into two branches after a few hundred meters or so. Also, there are small tombs and burial niches carved in the walls all along the way.”
“Why did you not say this at the beginning, Kit Livingstone?”
“You know the place?”
“Of course. Everyone knows this place.”
“If you can get us there, I can find the tomb.”
They spent the night in the desert camped outside the ruined temple. Kit showed his new benefactor the avenue of sphinxes and the ley line it contained. “The leys seem to be time sensitive,” he explained as the two stood looking down the straight path between the paws of the crouching lions. “Early morning and evening seem to be the best times to attempt a leap. I can sometimes feel when it is active.”
“Extraordinary.” The scientist squatted down and put a hand to the broken pavement. “Do you feel anything now?”
Kit shook his head. “Not at the moment, no.” He cast a glance to the sky. The sun was well down, the night stars rising in the east. “It may be too late. Maybe, when we have found what we are after, I can show you how it works.”
“I will look forward to a demonstration with keenest anticipation.”
The next morning Khefri led them to the wadi entrance, and the expeditionary party proceeded down the long, winding stone corridor of the gorge. They reached the divide, and a little farther along began seeing the burial niches; they came to the steep cutting where Kit and Giles and Lady Fayth had climbed up to await their assault on the tomb in the ill-fated attempt at rescuing Cosimo and Sir Henry. Shortly after that, they arrived at the place where the main channel split into east and west tributaries.
“This is the place,” said Kit, gazing around. “Here is where we make camp.” The bowl-shaped gulley was much the same as he remembered it, with only slight variations-so slight, in fact, that Kit had difficulty remembering that this was not the place he had been before. In this world, it was 1822 and there were neither tents nor Burley Men, and no excavated tomb either: just the sheer dust-coloured rock walls and the dry and empty wadi floor winding away on either hand. The great empty temple was there and still empty-though the interior, when inspected later, bore signs of scavenger activity. Indeed, there was no guarantee that Anen had even lived in this world, much less that he had been buried in the wadi.
“Are you certain this is the place?” Thomas, sweating beneath his big white straw hat, patted his brow with a handkerchief and looked around doubtfully. “I have to say, I have never heard of a tomb located in such a remote and inaccessible location. I would never have thought of digging here.”
“If the tomb is here at all, it will be in this wadi,” Kit assured him. “Somewhere…” He paced along the eastern branch a few dozen steps and stopped at a bend in the rock that looked faintly familiar. “Just about here, I’d say.”
He pointed to the base of the curtain wall. “Somewhere along here is the entrance. There are steps leading down to the burial chambers below.” He looked along the seamless wall for any sign of the tomb but saw nothing to betray a hidden entrance. “At least, that’s the way I remember it from the other place.”
“Then that is where we will begin.” The doctor told Khefri to have the men unload the animals, unpack the equipment, and set up camp.
Soon the area resembled a bedouin village, complete with low, wing-shaped tents and a tiny campfire of twigs and dried dung over which flat bread baked on the bottom of an upturned pot. Sweet acacia smoke drifted on silvery threads into the air, and as the sun sank below the surrounding hills, an air of peace and calm descended over the ancient burial ground.
While the evening meal was cooking, the doctor took a long, thin iron rod and began probing the sandy floor of the wadi where Kit had indicated, thrusting the tip of the rod deep and waggling it around, searching for any fissure or other anomaly that might betray a manmade structure. “This is how we begin,” Thomas explained. “You would be surprised what can be learned by literally poking around.”
Working methodically, he applied the rod along the base of the wadi wall; when he finished, he had identified a half-dozen places where exploratory trenches would be dug. Kit was satisfied that at least one of them would turn out to be the sealed entrance of the tomb.
Darkness claimed the day, and after their simple meal the men rolled in their cloaks to sleep, and soon the camp was at rest in the silence of the desert. Kit himself spent a restless night troubled by dreams of finding the bones of Cosimo and Sir Henry, or worse: being locked in the tomb with their rotting corpses.
Those unhappy thoughts cast a dark cloud over his soul that lingered through the next day until, at the third trench, the diggers uncovered a large capstone set in the wadi floor. Khefri came running with the news. “Sir! Sir, come quickly. Dr. Young is calling for you.”
“What is it?” Kit was lying on his grass mat in the shade of the tent, having completed a tiring stint at the second trench. “Have they found something?”
“It is the entrance of the tomb.” Khefri dashed away again. “Hurry!”
Kit jumped to his feet and rushed after the swift Egyptian. “That’s what I’m talking about! Now the fun begins.”