CHAPTER 23

In Which Patience and Practice Pay Off

Are you certain you won’t come with us?” asked Kit. They were standing once again at the end of the sphinx avenue in the early-morning light. Both Thomas and Khefri gazed apprehensively down the long row of statuary towards the temple set in the face of the sheer rock cliff.

“I have made my decision,” replied the doctor somewhat wistfully. “Someone must remain behind to take care of all the treasures we have liberated from Anen’s tomb.” He put a hand on the young Egyptian’s shoulder. “My young friend and I have several years’ worth of work to do, thanks to you. This experience has been most enlightening. I am in your debt.”

“Not a bit of it,” Kit countered. “If anything, it is the other way ’round.”

“You will come back?” asked Kherfri. “When you have found what you are looking for-you will return to Egypt?”

“I will,” promised Kit. “If at all possible, I’ll be back before you know it.”

Wilhelmina fished the brass ley lamp from the pocket of her jumpsuit. A tiny glint of blue winked in the early-morning light. “We should be going,” she said, replacing the odd instrument. Moving to Dr. Young, she extended her hand. When he took it, she pulled him into a hug. “Thank you for everything, Thomas. I knew I could trust you. And Kit’s right-we will return as soon as possible.”

“Rest assured that in your absence I will endeavour to further inquiries into the philosophical implications of ley travel,” said Thomas, gently extricating himself from her embrace. He patted the copy of the Skin Map he had carefully sketched and now wore beneath his shirt next to his own skin. “God willing, I may even be able to translate the cypher.”

“Then we’ll leave you to it,” said Kit.

“On your return, I will happily accompany you wherever your further journeys take you,” added the doctor. “On that you have my word.”

“Until then,” said Kit, clasping his hand.

Mina touched Kit’s arm. “It’s time.”

Wilhelmina and Giles had shown up the previous evening in the midst of the excavators’ celebration at having found the Skin Map. Kit, in an expansive mood, took them down into the tomb and showed them the wall paintings. “See here,” he said, indicating the third panel. “We didn’t have time before, but here is the man himself-Arthur Flinders-Petrie, dressed in a striped robe, open at the chest to reveal the tattoos.”

“Extraordinary,” agreed Wilhelmina. “Probably the first-if not the only-portrait of the man and his map.”

Giles, who had last seen the room as a prisoner locked up with the corpse of his master and condemned to die of thirst, turned his gaze slowly towards the sarcophagus where he and Kit had put the bodies of Sir Henry and Cosimo.

Kit saw the glance and involuntary grimace that followed and recognised the reaction. “I know, Giles,” he said. “It takes a little effort to put it behind you. But it might help to remember that this is not the same tomb where Sir Henry and Cosimo died. That tomb-the one we were in-is in another place and time, in another world.”

Giles nodded, but said nothing.

“Now,” said Kit, moving on to the fourth panel of the giant wall painting, “take a look at this last one. There is High Priest Anen holding the map-the whole thing-as he points to the star.”

“But ours is only a piece,” commented Wilhelmina. “Isn’t that what you said?”

“Possibly a fourth or fifth of the whole-just as Cosimo believed, and which more or less corresponds to the portion I saw in the Christ Church crypt.”

“But you said that was a fake,” Mina pointed out.

“It was,” confirmed Kit, “although someone had gone to the trouble of making it roughly the same size and shape as the original he had stolen.”

“What will you do with the map?” wondered Thomas. “Now that you have found it, what will you do?”

“First,” Kit considered, “we must learn to read it. And then we’ll use it to carry on Cosimo and Sir Henry’s quest to find Flinders-Petrie’s treasure.”

Wilhelmina put her face close to the painting. She held her lamp nearer and studied the map in the high priest’s hand. “Are these in any way accurate, do you think?”

“I wish they were,” said Kit. “They’re just the artist’s representations. I don’t think the people who drew those symbols had any interest in rendering them in exact detail. My guess is they probably never saw the real map at all.” He shrugged. “Who knows?”

“Let me see it,” said Wilhelmina.

Kit turned to Thomas, who produced a bundle wrapped in fresh linen. The doctor untied the cord and unrolled the nearly translucent patch of human parchment. In the gentle lambent glow of the lamps, the indigo symbols etched on the skin seemed to pulsate with strange power.

“May I?” said Wilhelmina. Thomas passed the map to her, and she held it up to the painting. Though the symbols in the painting were crude squiggles next to the real thing, the basic shapes seemed more or less correct. The piece Mina was holding did match up with the upper right quadrant of the map in High Priest Anen’s hand. “Whoever cut up the map was very careful,” she observed. “Look at the ruffled edges.” She pointed out the lower portion and left side of the map. “See how irregular the line is?”

“Whoever did it was at pains not to cut into other symbols,” replied Kit. “So they cut around them, producing this deckled edge.”

“The adjoining pieces will match precisely,” offered Thomas. “By that you will know they are genuine.”

Wilhelmina carefully re-rolled the human parchment and passed it to Thomas, who returned it to its cover. The four had then returned to the wadi camp, where Khefri had organised a special dinner of roast goat to celebrate the successful completion of the dig. They had eaten and talked late into the night, and now, as the sun was rising in the east, it was time to depart.

Wilhelmina started down the avenue towards the spot where Giles was waiting. Kit lifted a hand and called, “Farewell!”

“Go with God, my friends,” shouted Thomas, waving them away. “Grace and peace attend you.”

But his words were lost in the shriek of the wind that suddenly gusted along the ancient pavement. The world grew hazy in a mixture of dust and grit… and the next thing Kit knew, a fierce rain was beating on his face. His clothing whipped about his limbs in a gale-force wind that, unlike his other experiences, did not summarily die away upon their arrival.

“I think we’ve landed in the middle of a hurricane!” he shouted, trying to be heard above the crash and roar.

“What?” came Wilhelmina’s voice from a distance that sounded like miles, but must have been only a few feet away.

“This storm,” he cried. “We’re in the thick of it.”

“It’s always storming here,” she shouted, emerging out of the lashing wind. “It never stops.”

“Never?”

“Not ever.” She pressed her wet face closer. “Not that I know.”

“You’ve been here before?”

“Lots of times.”

He felt her hand grip his arm.

“This way. Stay with me.” She turned her head and shouted over her shoulder. “Giles! Are you with us?”

“Here, my lady,” came the reply from somewhere close behind.

“Take hold of my hand. I’m going to count to three, and we run straight ahead. Ready? Here we go… one… two… three.. . Go!”

Kit did as instructed, sprinting blindly into the teeth of the storm. For an instant it felt as if his flesh would be ripped from his bones, and then… darkness and silence. He was tumbling through an emptiness, through an airless void so absolute he thought he was suffocating. He gagged, but could not draw oxygen into his lungs.

He felt a sharp sting on his cheek.

“Breathe, Kit!”

He opened his eyes to see Wilhelmina standing before him with her hand poised to strike again. “Hah!” he gasped, staggering backwards. “Stop that! I’m okay.”

Mina turned to Giles, who was kneeling on a broad, leaf-strewn path a few paces away. “You okay?” Upon receiving his grunted reply, she said, “Sorry, guys. That one was the worst-but it saved us four more jumps and maybe two days of overland travel.”

“Anything for the cause,” said Kit, woozily shaking water from his clothes. “I’m soaked to the skin.”

“You’ll dry.” Wilhelmina started away. “Have you still got the map?”

Kit patted his stomach, where the bundle resided under his shirt. He nodded.

“Good.” She started away. “You’ll feel better once we’re moving again. It’s best to walk it off. Come on.”

“Where are we?” Kit glanced around. They seemed to be standing in a lightly wooded countryside; the air was cool and redolent of fallen leaves. He could hear insects buzzing in the branches of the nearby trees.

“We’re about three miles north of Prague,” she said, stepping off the path. “There’s a road a little farther along. It runs beside the river. It’ll take us into the city. If we’re lucky, we might be able to hitchhike the rest of the way.”

“ When are we?” Kit asked.

“Well, we’re somewhere in the autumn of 1607 during the reign of Emperor Rudolf. If we hit it right, we’re in early September.” She started towards a bayberry bush growing beside the path. “Or possibly August.”

“And we’ve come here why?” wondered Kit.

“I live here,” she said. “We need a good safe place to lay up for a few days to study the map and figure out what to do next. Wait here,” she said, stepping behind the bush. “I have to change.”

“You stashed a change of clothes?” said Kit. “Nice.”

“I dare not be seen dressed like this in the city. Too many people know me.”

Kit looked down at himself. “What about Giles and me?”

“Giles is fine the way he is,” came the reply from behind the bush. “As for you, take off that dumb turban and wrap it around your waist. Tie it like a sash; it will help disguise your flouncy shirt.”

“Flouncy shirt,” muttered Kit. “It’s a jalabiya, I’ll have you know.”

“I’m sure it is. With a sash, people will just think it’s a labourer’s smock. They wear those around here.”

Kit obeyed as instructed, much to the amusement of the watching Giles. “Where did you go, you and Giles, when we left the wadi the first time? While I was helping Thomas dig up the tomb, where were you?”

“In Edinburgh,” came the reply from the bushes. “Dr. Young was there. I went to convince him to help you excavate the tomb.”

“But that’s-How can that be? He was in Egypt with me… wasn’t he?”

“Not yet,” said Wilhelmina. “I should have thought that would be obvious.”

“Not to me. Explain.”

“It simple. Time, as we know, operates independently in different frames of reference.”

“As we know,” Kit agreed.

“So I simply had to reach him before he left for Egypt on his expedition.”

“But that would mean I was already with him, digging up the treasure before you even asked him,” Kit pointed out.

“Right,” said Wilhelmina. “Neat, eh?” She stepped out from behind the bush, wholly transformed. Gone was the girl in the camouflage jumpsuit and sky-blue scarf and desert boots; in her place stood a winsome lass in a long skirt, white blouse with puffy sleeves, and multicoloured shawl. She carried a cloth bag, which she handed to Kit.

“This way, chaps,” she said, and soon they were moving through the long grass and down a gently sloping hillside.

Kit could see the gleam of a river at the bottom of the incline and, sure enough, a road.

“If we don’t dillydally, we can have dinner tonight at one of the best restaurants in the city.”

Kit stopped walking and stared at her, as if seeing her for the first time. “Gosh, Mina. You are amazing. How do you know so much about all this?”

“Practice,” she said. “Lots and lots of practice. And mistakes.”

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