Outskirts of Cairo, Egypt, 2 April 1821
THANKS TO HIS MOTHER, RUPERT CARSINGTON had hair and eyes as dark as any Egyptian’s. This did not mean he blended in with the crowd on the bridge. In the first place, he was easily the tallest man there. In the second, both his manner and attire marked him as an Englishman. The Egyptians and Turks, who judged men by the quality of their dress, noticed, too, that he was not a man of low birth.
The locals had the advantage of the Earl of Hargate’s fourth son.
Having arrived in Egypt only six weeks ago, Rupert was not yet able to distinguish among the numerous tribes and nationalities. Certainly he couldn’t size up social status at a glance.
He could, however, recognize an unequal match when he saw one.
The soldier was large—a few inches shy of Rupert’s six-plus feet—and armed like a man-of-war. Three knives, a pair of swords, a pair of pistols, and ammunition protruded or hung from his wide belt. Oh, yes, he brandished a heavy staff, too—in an unfriendly way at the moment, at a bruised, limping, filthy fellow in front of him.
The poor devil’s crime, as far as Rupert could see, was being too slow. The soldier roared some foreign threat or curse. Stumbling away, the terrified peasant fell. The soldier swung his staff at the man’s legs. The wretch rolled to one side, and the staff struck the bridge, inches away. Enraged, the soldier raised the weapon and aimed for the unfortunate’s head.
Rupert broke through the gathering crowd, shoved the soldier, and yanked the staff from his hand. The soldier reached for a knife, and Rupert swung, knocking the blade to the ground. Before his adversary could draw another weapon from his arsenal, Rupert swung the staff at him. The man dodged, but the edge of the weapon caught him in the hip, and over he went. He reached for his pistol as he fell, and Rupert again swung the staff. His opponent howled in pain, dropping the pistol.
“Go!” Rupert told the dirty cripple, who must have understood the accompanying gesture if not the English word, because he scrambled to his feet and limped away. The crowd parted to let him through.
Rupert started after him a moment too late. Soldiers were forcing their way through the growing mob. In an instant, they’d surrounded him.
NEWS OF THE altercation, greatly embroidered, traveled swiftly from the bridge to el-Esbekiya. This quarter of Cairo, about half a mile away, was where European visitors usually lodged.
During the inundation, in late summer, the overflowing Nile turned the square of the Esbekiya into a lake where boats plied to and fro. The river being low at present, the area was merely a stretch of ground enclosed with buildings.
In one of the larger houses, a mildly anxious Daphne Pembroke awaited her brother Miles. The day was fading. If he did not arrive soon, he would not get in, because the gates were locked after dark. They were also kept locked during times of plague or insurrection, both regular occurrences in Cairo.
Daphne was only half-listening for her brother’s arrival, though. She gave the better part of her attention to the documents in front of her.
Among them was a lithographic copy of the Rosetta Stone, a recently acquired papyrus, and a pen-and-ink copy of the latter. She was nearly nine and twenty years old, and had been trying to solve the mystery of Egyptian writing for the last ten years.
The first time she’d seen Egyptian hieroglyphs, Daphne had fallen madly, desperately, and hopelessly in love with them. All her youthful studies had aimed at unlocking their secretive little hearts. She had become infatuated with and wed a man nearly thrice her age because he was (a) poetically handsome, (b) a language scholar, and (c) the owner of a collection of books and documents for which she lusted.
At the time, she’d believed they were ideally suited.
At the time, she’d been nineteen years old, her vision obscured by the stars in her eyes.
She soon learnt, among other painful lessons, that her brilliant scholar husband, exactly like stupider men, believed that intellectual endeavors put too great a strain on the inferior female brain.
Claiming to have her best interests at heart, Virgil Pembroke forbade her studying Egyptian writing. He said that even male scholars familiar with Arabic, Coptic, Greek, Persian, and Hebrew had no hope of deciphering it in her lifetime. This he deemed no great loss: Egyptian civilization being primitive—greatly inferior to that of classical Greece—decipherment would contribute little to the store of human knowledge.
Daphne was a clergyman’s daughter. She’d made a sacred vow to love, honor, and obey her husband, and she did try. But when it became clear that she must pursue her studies or go mad with boredom and frustration, she chose to risk perdition and disobey her husband. Thereafter, she continued her work in secret.
Virgil had died five years ago. Sadly, prejudice against women scholars did not die with him. This was why, even now, only her indulgent brother and a select group of friends knew the secret. Everyone else believed her brother Miles was the linguistic genius of the family.
Had he been, he might have known better than to pay two thousand pounds for the papyrus she was studying. However, a merchant named Vanni Anaz had claimed it described the final resting place of a young pharaoh, name unknown—as was the case at present for most Egyptian royalty. The story was clearly the product of the romantic Eastern imagination. No educated person could possibly believe it. Nonetheless, it had apparently captivated Miles, much to her surprise.
He had even gone to Giza again to study the interior of the second pyramid, because, he said, it would help him understand the thinking of ancient tomb builders and aid in locating the young king’s tomb and its treasures.
Though Daphne was certain the pyramids could tell him nothing, she held her tongue. He delighted in exploring Egypt’s monuments. Why spoil his fun? She merely made sure he took sufficient supplies for the overnight stay he planned.
She declined to accompany him. She’d gone with him once to Giza and explored the two pyramids it was possible to enter. Neither contained any hieroglyphic writing, although various visitors had scratched their profound thoughts upon the stones, e.g., “Suverinus loves Claudia.” Equally important, she was not eager for another squeeze through the pyramids’ long, small, hot, smelly passageways.
At the moment, however, the pyramids were far from Daphne’s thoughts. She was deciding that Dr. Young had incorrectly interpreted the hook and the three tails signs when her maidservant Leena burst through the door.