Egypt Novel — Discarded First Chapter
June 4, 1908
Anubis has made a fool of me for the last time. My funds have run dry as my patience, and the bespectacled cow is still sniffing through her worthless pit of dirt in direct defiance of my every command. Five years I've endured the supposedly brilliant doctor in hopes she would discover the next tomb of gold. She's found something. I know it, yet she yields nothing. Thoth has shared his own suspicions on the matter, but last week I recieved a report that she’s dismissed him. The useless weasel. I will not be so patient with him.
Every day is a new test as the talk round the billiards table brings nothing but news of grand discoveries of mummified kings and troves of gold brought back by my associates' own projects. My mouth is sewn shut by the failure to discover even a finger in the Valley of Queens, thanks to her. Enough. The time has come for Anubis to join the dead she so loves to study—on my generosity. I've enclosed half the funds here, the other half is yours soon as I have proof she's gone for good. It shouldn’t be difficult, people go missing in the desert all the time. Perhaps I’ll manage to salvage my profits off whatever you can find on her person once the deed is done.
Chateau du Coquelicot
"I found another bundle of notes on Cephalotes atratus. And mon dieu, how much is there to say about one species of ant?"
Laila Ducharme stared in horror at the ever-increasing pile of documents, boxes of paper, diagrams, and models stacked in the middle of the cramped study. Her Aunt Clarisse moved around the massive desk with nimble steps, having spent upwards of thirty years coming and going here. She did not, however, account for her full mourning skirts knocking into a fresh stack of documents. The crackling sound of paper skidding across the floor was quickly followed by Laila's groan and the gentle thud of knees hitting the floor.
"Elle, just leave it. The middle of the room is all waste anyway, cherie."
"It isn't waste!" Laila met her sister's deep hazel eyes half-hidden beneath a pair of spectacles, and felt her heart lurch at the pain she saw in them. Laila straightened her shoulders and knelt down to help her twin gather the countless sheets of parchment.
"You are right, it’s not . . . but I have to wonder why hundreds of pages of notes are necessary for one species of ant. How important can they be, really?"
"Oh, Uncle Michel taught me all about them and their effects on the Amazon Rainforest. Without them, the whole system falls apart. Why—"
The speech went on for a few minutes during which time Laila managed to shove the pile back into place and make a decent effort at looking attentive. She did love how her generally subdued twin lit up at the topic of multi-legged creatures—nearly as much as oddly shaped, poisonous plants. The rub was simply that such things put her to sleep and always had, unless it was some ancient species of flesh-eating scarab. Now, if Eloise wished to discuss those things, or just how the process of mummification was rendered, Laila would be more than happy to listen.
"Right," Aunt Clarisse's plum British tones cut into the rather gruesome explanation of the ants' attack formation upon enemy species, "why don't you go through the stacks and separate that which you wish to save from the rubbish?"
Laila watched Elle wilt before her eyes, shoulders drooping. "That is the problem. I want to save every scrap of Uncle Michel's study. After all, he's no longer able to find just the right bit of information for me, or...these are all that is left."
Silence thickened the room until Laila had to find some way to scatter it, lest they all suffocate. She waved a hand as if to clear the air and shook her head.
"Non, Elle, we said our goodbyes. I cannot stand even one more tear. Besides, we can't leave Aunt Clarisse to do it alone and we both know that you want half this mess for your own collection anyway. Better to get through it all in one swoop." With that, she turned and briskly sorted through the drawers of the desk. She heard her sigh matched by Elle's.
"You are right, of course. Besides, if I start crying again, I don't know when I would stop. I'll save these notes and diagrams for now."
Laila glanced over her shoulder with a brief smile, watching the much more reserved one flit across Elle's face. Some might say it was like looking in a mirror, but she thought that was ridiculous. Though they were twins, their personalities showed clearly through in every minute gesture if anyone bothered to watch closely enough.
"Laila, can you come help me with this? It seems to be stuck and I can't find a key."
Her uncle never had been the most organized. Laila picked her way around the papers, tripped over a model of some type of exotic bird, and nearly swore when the head shattered. Sorting the study was a daunting prospect given the fact that her uncle was not only a zoologist hell-bent on collecting hundreds of samples, but had also inhabited the study since he'd inherited the estate at age eighteen.
"What is it, Aunt Clarisse?" Stepping over the fragments of bone, Laila raised her head to take in the situation. Her aunt had rolled her sleeves up some time before, pale skin exposed to the elbows, and was busy attempting to pull open a massive cupboard her husband had presumably used to store yet more information.
"This bloody thing is fastened tight and I can't...I can't work out how to open it." Laila bit back a smile as she watched her tiny aunt attempting to pull on the even tinier knobs. Laila was not a large woman precisely, nor particularly tall, but she was certainly no dainty English flower either—not that her aunt was any more conventional a woman than she. Laila looked about and spotted a thin metallic rod that had previously held up curtains. Perfect.
"Step aside; it's time for physics to play." Laila fit the end of the bar beneath one door's edge as best she could and wiggled. Once securely in place, she threw her weight on the opposite end of the bar and after a long moment's protest, the door burst open, unleashing a cloud of dust.
"Quelle horreur!" Elle jumped back and raced to throw the window open as Laila and Aunt Clarisse coughed, beating the air with their hands in an attempt to fan the filth away. A light, grey film quickly coated their dark clothes and hair, aging all three by at least forty years. Laila's eyes watered and her nose twitched, but she grit her teeth and soldiered on.
She furiously scrubbed at her face with a sleeve, smearing the grime more than removing it so that her gold-toned skin looked patchy and odd. The scarf she’d used to tie her thick hair back had slipped half-over her eyes, so she righted that as well and tightened the knot at the base of her neck. Satisfied, she glanced over her companions to see how they fared and let out a sharp laugh.
Aunt Clarisse, used to odd messes thanks to her occupation as a botanist, was industriously using a handkerchief (tucked up her sleeve for such occasions) to clear the worst off her face. Poor Eloise, however, was sprinkled head to toe in a dusty residue and squinting hard to see past her now-dingy spectacles.
"Oh, this won't do," Elle said and wiped at her eyes, knocking the spectacles off one ear in the process so they were left dangling.
"No, it won't," Laila said, smirking. Elle wouldn't be able to see it anyway. Laila reached forward and plucked the things off her sister's face, then handed them to Aunt Clarisse to clean as was their custom.
"Aunt Clarisse," Elle said, voice muffled by her sleeve. "What did Uncle keep in there? Come to think, in all the times I've been in here with him, he never used it. I always assumed it simply held old—“ She broke into a fit of coughs, then wheezed “—old notes or something?"
Laila's interest piqued at this. A secret cupboard?
"Well, the safe is for money and valuables," Aunt Clarisse said, lifting the spectacles to the light to examine them before passing the pair off back to her niece, "so I'm not sure what Michel would have kept here. I would suppose his nicer equipment, to keep it from tiny, mischievous girls."
Laila fought the urge to groan even as heat rushed into her cheeks.
"It isn't my fault Uncle left his jars of butterfly specimens on display in such a tempting fashion. And I was all of five years old!"
"Regardless of that," Aunt Clarisse said as she came to stand beside Laila and peered inside, "I'm sure it's nothing too . . ."
Laila and Aunt Clarisse froze before the doors of the wooden cupboard and stared inside. Elle joined them a moment later, sensing something amiss, but she too stopped as she caught sight of the items within.
Laila was the first to move, as was the general rule in the family. She stretched her fingers out until they brushed against the smooth, wooden surface of a box. Her fingertip slid across the letters painted in red along its side.
She set her hands on either side of the little box and pulled it down into her arms. It was heavier than she'd assumed, and she staggered for a second before setting it atop the desk even as a shuffling from behind told her that her aunt and twin were getting the boxes with their own names painted on them. A lump began to form in her throat even before she lifted the top off.
Inside the box lay a jumble of items and papers and for a moment, she wondered if it was a mistake. Reaching in to prod at a few of the objects, Her hand knocked an envelope to the side and she spotted something that caused her heart to skip a beat. Lifting it out of the box with now-trembling fingers, she beheld her mother's compass.
She'd never thought to see it again. This had to be a replica, or she must be mistaken; yet when she turned it over the small engraving on the back erased all doubts.
Find me again.
H. L. H.
The compass was a pivotal part of every memory Laila had of her mother. Always upon her visits to the chateau, she'd bring with her gifts, stories, the spicy scent of forbidden pipe tobacco, and the bronze compass that was worn dull by the touch of her hands. The cardinal points were labeled in neat script all alongside a series of numbers. A small emerald occupied the center over the compass needle, which was comprised of one slender end and another, more pronounced arrow to point the way. It had been her most treasured possession, a gift from the great lost love of her life.
Laila clutched it in one hand and stroked the front lightly with the other, catching sight of her reflection in the tiny pane of glass. Were those her eyes, so large with wonder? Fear? The sight blurred and she found to her horror that she was just on the edge of tears.
"I thought it was lost with Maman," she said, voice choking the words halfway through. Blinking hard, she brought the compass to her heart and looked over, expecting her family to be similarly affected.
Neither was paying her any mind. Eloise was sitting on the floor, all sense of decorum lost as her legs splayed out and skirts fell wherever they pleased. She was busy rifling through her box and her tongue was poking out just a touch with concentration. Aunt Clarisse, somewhat more composed than either of them, was openly crying even as a smile pulled at her lips. Clean tracks appeared down her cheeks as her tears cut through the dust.
Laila turned back to the compass and lifted it to her lips for a brief kiss before sliding the chain over her head so it hung from her neck to rest beneath the top of her dress, just out of sight. Then, she returned her attention to the rest of the box's contents and began a mental catalogue that included: three of her mother's scientific journals, a large paper envelope seemingly stuffed to the brim with something, a few small bits of what seemed to be metal beaten into odd shapes, and a bundle of letters tied together with string.
She laid each of these out neatly, pausing at the journals for a moment. She had many of her mother's notebooks and journals, having studied them for her courses, so they weren't anything spectacular or new. That is, until she noted the dates.
1906, 1907, 1908. Her very last journals—the lost journals.
"What is that?"
Laila turned to see her Aunt Clarisse, having been so caught up she hadn't noticed her approach.
"I'm not sure," Laila said, fingering the date at the top of the leather-bound book before setting it atop the other two. "I'm not sure what Uncle Michel was doing with any of this, really . . . what did he leave you, Aunt?"
"Oh, memories. Many, lovely memories," Aunt Clarisse said, the bittersweet smile returning.
"Good," Laila said as she lifted up the bundle of letters to check the addresses and names. Her throat closed and her fingers trembled with sudden anticipation. They were all addressed to her uncle, but the sender? Dr. Émilie Ducharme.
Laila had to sit down for this final blow, and plopped back in the great chair behind the desk, another dust cloud filling the air for a brief moment. She tugged at the string impatiently but it had been tied long before and the knot was almost petrified with age. Letting out a frustrated growl, Laila searched the desk for something sharp and spotted the old jawbone of some predator only Elle would likely know the name of. She sawed at the string with the sharp canine tooth and, after a few moments, it snapped free. Tossing the string aside, she flicked through the envelopes, counting fourteen in total.
“What have you got there?” Aunt Clarisse asked, catching onto the feverish tension and lifting her head.
“Maman wrote to Uncle,” Laila said even as she opened the letter atop the stack, envelope crinkling while she worked the parchment free. She unfolded the thing, her heart beating double at the sight of her mother’s script. A quick check of the date revealed it was sent about two years before the disappearance. “I don't know why he would leave these in a box for me to find. Unless he meant for me to study mother's last findings…but I was under the impression that all these things were with Maman always. The journals and compass—" Her voice cut off briefly as she scanned the letter, but it held nothing useful beyond talk of a secret queen’s tomb she’d been hunting. That was no special news to her; her mother had always been on the hunt for some legend or another.
She opened the second and the third letters, only stopping long enough to examine the signature or writing every now and then. Laila’s own hand was rather like her mother’s, though slightly messier. Laila had never developed her patience.
"If Maman sent these just before she disappeared, do you suppose . . . you don't think she knew she would be gone, do you?" Elle asked, her voice coming from over Laila's shoulder. Laila looked up at her twin sister for a moment, a chill creeping down her spine.
"I'm not sure. Here, why don't you look through these with me for a while?" Laila moved over in the large chair until there was enough room for Elle to squeeze in beside her, the two shifting about for a moment until they were settled. Eloise busied herself with opening the rest of the envelopes and organizing the letters by date; Laila picked up the journals instead and flicked through their pages.
It was only a minute or so later that Elle shifted uncomfortably and Laila hunched forward with a journal spread in her lap, giving them both more space.
" . . . It looks like Maman found her golden goose after all," Laila said, face buried in the final journal from 1908. "The tomb of Queen Sitamun of the eighteenth dynasty. She was so happy. You can tell by the way she writes—it's all she ever wanted."
Elle shook her head and set down the letter in her hands before picking up the next one; there were only two left in the pile. "She found it, perhaps, but I think she was scared of losing it again—or leading others to it. Look here."
Laila reluctantly set down the journal and turned her attention to Eloise just as her sister held the letter up so she could read it as well. Laila's eyes scanned the page and soon, her dark brows had snapped together in the middle. Taking the letter from Elle's hand, she read aloud.
"'My room was ransacked once more last night. To avoid notice, I've been digging late in the evening and returning to my rooms at dawn. It was rather a lucky turn, brother, for I hate to think what might have happened if I'd been inside during the violation. As it is, I now keep my most valuable possessions with me at all times . . . the nights are growing colder, as does my blood. I fear I am being followed."
Laila felt her own skin crawl and she dropped that letter in favor of the second to last.
"Dated September, 1908. 'My suspicions have been confirmed. Two men attacked me last night. They searched not for my wallet, but through my bags, all the time insisting I give them 'the map'. They are fools to think such precious secrets would be recorded on a piece of papyrus. Luckily, guests from a local hotel began to walk our way or I fear they should have found the actual pieces and my notes tucked in the pocket hidden beneath my petticoat. It's too dangerous to work in the tomb now, night or day. Eyes watch me wherever I go. Though it is somewhat hidden now, I plan to reseal the entrance to the great queen's tomb before my enemies breach her walls. They would strip her of everything, even down to the bandages binding her body.'"
Laila scowled outright at this, before continuing. "' I know what you will say, but I must assure you I am being careful as I can. I plan to travel home for the Christmas holidays, and hope that during the visit, these thieves will lose interest and return to the Valley of Kings or to the rich European tourists that come down in flocks during the early season. For now, I enclose the story of Queen Sitamun, accounts written in hieroglyphics, and my own notes. I cannot risk having them on hand any longer. Keep them from Laila until I can come home to teach her myself, the rascal—"
Her voice broke off as a sudden onslaught of tears struck. She felt Elle's comforting hand settle over hers and gave a shaky smile before clearing her throat, stacking that letter with the others.
She reached for the last one. Right off, she could tell something was wrong; her mother’s usually precise handwriting was messy as her own. Her shoulders tense, she began to read.
"Dated October the first, 1908."
Elle looked over at her sharply. "Only four days before she was reported missing."
They both turned at the sound of a gasp behind them. Aunt Clarisse had drifted over during the reading of the letters, intrigued at first. Now by the widening of her eyes, the pale knuckles gripping the back of the chair, it was clear this was the first she’d heard of this message. It terrified the twins who had grown up in the generally self-assured, fearless woman's shadow. Laila frowned, but picked the last letter back up, determined to solve this puzzle that had so suddenly presented itself.
"'My dear Michel, I fear for my life—'"
Laila swallowed hard and tightened her grip on the paper even as her fingers threatened to go slack. She felt a cold rush of tingles passing through her entire body and gritted her teeth against it.
"'Eyes and ears wait around every corner here in Cairo. I sealed the tomb shut a week ago, and have since secured the things I had no time to send away with friends or hide myself. I . . . I do not think that I will make it home now."
"She knew! She and Michel—how could he keep that from me?" Clarisse fell back into a chair that wobbled due to a missing leg. Laila saw that she was pale through the dust, and thought her own face must be similarly devoid of color. Surely that explained the coldness taking her over, the stiffness in her bones and buzzing in her ears. It was hard to make out the last bit of the letter, but she couldn't tell whether it was her eyes failing her or the increasingly messy writing making it so difficult.
"'The threats of which I informed you—'"
"Threats? What threats? The other letters said nothing about threats!" Elle began to scramble through the other letters before Laila hushed her.
"'—are about to be realized, I am sure of it. My only regret is that I will never see my daughters again. You and Clarisse have done far beyond my greatest expectations in raising them, and with that you have my eternal gratitude. They were my treasures, far more than any earthly objects I ever possessed.'"
"Oh, Maman . . ."
"'These men playing gods may have power, but they shall never know the secrets Queen Sitamun holds, for I have found the only link to her tomb and I am sending the key to you, my dear brother. I am also sending every piece of the puzzle that I have in my possession. The right person shall know how to fit it together. History shall not forget her even though I may blow away with the sand. Give Laila my compass, Elle my ring, and put the rest of the information safely away until you find someone suitable to the task. Perhaps they will present themselves with time. My exact fate eludes me and I hope these fears might be laughed away over Christmas roast soon. Dead or alive, I know my time in these beautiful deserts has come to an end. Farewell, mon cher, until we meet again. Émilie."
Laila read the end of the letter three-times over until the words blurred and she felt heat rising beneath her eyes, tears slipping out to dampen her cheeks. She heard sniffles beside her and reflexively wrapped an arm around Elle. Elle's shoulders immediately stiffened and Laila let her arm drop, fingers tightening in a little fist. She looked back to the assortment before them.
"Right," Clarisse said, her voice coming out odd as though she were attempting to talk around something caught in her throat, "This is unexpected."
"Is it?" Laila was a bit shocked at how flat her own tone sounded. "We all knew Maman wouldn't just leave of her own accord. In fact, I've always wondered why it wasn't investigated further." Even her laugh was hollow. “What was it they said? People go missing in the desert all the time?”
She looked over at her aunt then, not caring to hide the accusation she knew was in her eyes. "If Uncle Michel had said something or told someone, or even gone after Maman himself, maybe she'd be here even now."
"Laila, don't say that." Elle sat up and wiped at her face with a sleeve.
"Why not?" Laila shifted to the edge of her chair and began to organize the letters back into a neat pile. The room was dim, and not just because of all the dust. Had a cloud covered the sun?
"Perhaps there wasn't a worthy man to be found." Clarisse straightened in the three-legged chair and folded her hands in her lap. Her gaze wandered over the papers, a touch empty. "If your mother died protecting this information, Michel couldn't very well go find the first man claiming to be an Egyptologist and hand it all over. He had to be careful with it, but he was also getting sick in 1908. Remember that it was just two years later he finally had to be confined to a bed."
"So nobody ever went to search for Maman after all."
Laila shook her head and stared down at the items before her, a fierce frown settling on her face. She set the letters atop her father's journals and then fiddled with the tiny artifacts that meant nothing to her yet. Obviously Egyptian, they seemed to be tiny slivers of stone—or perhaps clay or metal. It was hard to be sure, given their odd shapes. She passed over the pieces after a moment's consideration and lifted the large envelope instead.
"Your Uncle loved your father," Clarisse was saying as Laila worked it open on one side and shook the contents out into her already-full lap. "I am sure he did everything in his power to ensure—"
"He did," Laila whispered.
"What?" Eloise turned her head to look at her twin and stilled.
"Uncle Michel knew he wouldn't find someone else to do the job, because-because someone else wouldn't be me." Laila’s shoulders began to bunch up and she shifted where she sat, heartbeat drumming in her ears. "Mon dieu. I-I've been training for this my whole life—studying Egyptology, the language and geography, reading every journal of Maman’s ten times over! It was always supposed to be me. Isn’t it clear?"
"Hang on," Clarisse said and walked over to see just what had set off this reaction. Leaning over, she, Elle, and Laila looked down at a tiny, finely crafted key, a single scarlet and gold earring, and a sliver of papyrus.
"It's the key," Laila said. "From mother's letters. A-And there are the stories of Sitamun just here and her journals—"
"Wait a moment," Elle said, her hand shooting forward to grip Laila's arm like she was trying to rein in a wild horse. "Just wait a moment. You cannot possibly know that she meant for you to go. It-It's too dangerous, Laila. You've never been farther south than Nice, and such a trip as this . . ."
Laila's eyes flashed and she tore her arm from Elle's grip, far too caught in everything to worry about the logistics now. She hastily slid the gold and ruby earring and key back into the wide envelope and closed it back up.
"It all makes sense, Elle. It's what I've studied all these years to do. I always knew I'd go—I can finally find out what happened to our mother. Don't you want that?"
Silence stretched between them, identical frowns on their faces before Elle's mouth fell open, helpless to answer the way Laila wanted.
"I need a moment," Aunt Clarisse said then, a hand going to her head. "This is all too much, too fast. I can feel a migraine coming." She stood and rubbed at her temples. "I suggest you both retire before tempers—" She looked at Laila "—start to fly." With that, she swept from the room and headed for her chambers.
Laila fixed her sister with an unrelenting stare, one hand now wrapped around the compass hanging from her neck. Eloise met her gaze, but where the one twin was all fire now, the other was ice. Elle generally went along with what Laila wanted, if only to keep the peace. Laila was terribly impulsive and approached life in an unrestrained, oft reckless fashion. When something intrigued her, she had to find out what it was and how it worked and God help anyone who stood in her way.
Elle, by contrast, had a quiet way about her that many people took for shyness. She had learned over the years that it was generally better to restrain herself and plan ahead, wary of the consequences of spontaneity after years of getting caught up in her twin's schemes.
"I have to do this." Laila set her envelope down and crossed her arms.
"No, you don't." Elle stood as well and affected the same posture. "It is not only foolish, it is dangerous. You have no protection, no money, nor any real idea of where Maman went. There's a difference between studying a place and going."
"I don't care," Laila said. "I must go. Why else would Uncle leave me all of this information? Why would he leave Maman's letters, or the key and other things? Elle, Maman mentioned a key specifically, so why—"
"Because letting us know what happened to Maman was the right thing to do," Elle said without hesitation. "And perhaps he thought you might use this to hire someone to find her as he was unable to. Maman clearly never wished for you to go, otherwise she wouldn't have ordered her things kept from you. Or did you forget the letter before the last?
"She ordered that before she knew she wouldn't be coming back." Laila heard her voice crack and she faltered for a moment, swallowing hard. Those tremors were coming back, like electricity coursing through her. Grief was such an impossible beast, especially when they'd never been given a body to bury. Every time she thought herself rid of it, the bite returned. "I can't throw away such an opportunity."
Eloise dropped her arms to her side and let out a groan. "So don't throw it away. Start to research and call upon fellow Egyptologists, ones with field experience who could find Maman's work."
"I'm the most learned Egyptologist in all of France—probably on the continent!"
Elle laughed bitterly. "Do not think so highly of yourself, you are young yet."
"And you aren't? I have heard you with aunt and uncle, with your tutors! You went through just as many as I and every single one complained of your arrogance." Laila glared, shaking her head. "We are both intelligent and well educated in our chosen fields— do not belittle me or yourself." Her statements were bold, but what had she spent the past one and twenty years obsessing over? Spending every waking hour and many of those stolen from the night? "I've the skills, the materials, and what's more, I knew Maman well. I could trace her steps, determine where she went and what she did."
"You aren't cosmically connected," Eloise said, and her hands made an exasperated sweep through the air. "Anyone else would do just as well as you, given the same resources. And it is not as though either of us ever really knew her—"
"Don’t say that! And no, they couldn't. Do . . . do you not believe in me?" Laila looked hard into her twin's eyes, even as she knew that precisely the same wrinkle was between her brows as now rested between Elle's.
"Don't ask that; it isn't fair," Elle said. "You are intelligent, Laila. But you have never left Europe and a woman traveling alone to traipse about Egypt just before flood season, and who would go out by herself to poke about deserted territories, is either exceedingly foolish or a madwoman.”
The words hung in the air for a moment, tasting bitter on Laila’s tongue. The unspoken “like Maman” settled into the pause.
“Did you not read the same letters as I? Her room was overturned; she was mugged, hunted like an animal. If those men are still down there, and if they catch wind of her very daughter traveling about . . . you could be in danger. You could disappear—die."
"I can protect myself," Laila said. "I'll be discreet, go by a different name, or-or hire help, or something."
"'Or something' has gotten us both into trouble before."
"Uncle Michel left each of us money—"
"To be used for studies, food, living, and possible marriages!"
Laila let out a laugh at that. "What marriages? Neither of us ever cared enough to debut and what prospects have we ever had, with our parents being who they were? Besides, one trip to Egypt isn't going to deplete my funds so drastically. Elle . . ." She shook her head and then stepped forward to catch Eloise's hands. The anger faded though the passion didn't budge an inch.
"You always go ventre a terre," Elle said, and every bit of stiffness left her on a breath. She gripped Laila's hands. "Headlong into everything. And you always end up hurt in one way or another. At least give it a few days' thought."
Laila bit her lip, but shook her head. "Uncle Michel clearly meant for me to be the one to go. Every tool is at my disposal; I studied under Maman and from her journals. We'll finally know just what happened to her, what she died for. This tomb . . . She talked about it from the time we were born. Queen Sitamun was her lifelong pursuit, and if she died protecting her, I must continue her work. And Elle—"
Laila watched Eloise's jaw clench and her heart gave a painful throb.
"Elle," she said again, and pressed her thumb into her sister's palm. "If I find out what happened to Maman, I may be able to bring those responsible to justice. Don't you want that?"
Eloise swallowed. "I do. But not at the expense of your life."
"I'm not going to die. Promise." Laila's eyes glinted then, a new plan taking root. "Why not come with me? Think of it—we can go to Morocco to see where our father grew up, see Egypt, find out what happened at last. We could honor Maman’s memory by finding and preserving her great discovery. We could—"
Elle pulled her hands away and Laila's heart dropped into her stomach.
"If you must go," she said after a moment, "you will go alone. Someone has to stay and help Aunt Clarisse, and I have never cared for Egypt. I love you, and I loved Maman, but you were her fav-her prodigy, her pupil." Laila watched as Elle pulled herself up to her full height and let out her breath. "I made my peace with Maman's disappearance, her . . . her death, three and a half years ago. I can't go chasing phantoms now. I must move on."
Laila stared at her for several long moments, not sure which emotion to settle on. She swayed and then her fingers curled into fists.
"Fine . . . Fine. I'll go by myself." Nodding once, she spun on her heel and began to pile the items, letters, and journals back into her box, setting the lid firmly on top once done. Giving one final look to her twin, she set her jaw and swept from the room, box clasped to her chest. She missed the little flutter of paper falling from the place she'd left, just as she missed the agonized expression on Eloise's face.
Never mind it all. She wouldn't cower or cry any longer, nor would she ever have to lie awake at night wondering where her mother had gone and why nobody knew even a whisper of truth. Reaching her bedroom, Laila put the box down and swept through the room like a hurricane, throwing toiletries and clothes into bags at random. A few minutes later their ladies maid, Georgette, entered and froze, wide-eyed to see the chaos. It only took a few words to put her into motion.
One hour later, Laila's bags were ready, having been repacked neatly by the long-suffering maid; Laila was ready to begin her adventure. She just hoped Egypt was ready for her.