A Master of Djinn
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who many others called Liz, and I just called Mom.
Thanks for all those library visits.
Archibald James Portendorf disliked stairs. With their ludicrous lengths, ever leading up, as if in some jest. There were times, he thought, he could even hear them snickering. If these stairs had eyes to see, they would do more than snicker—watching as he huffed through curling auburn whiskers, his short legs wobbling under his rotundity. It was criminal in this modern age that stairs should be allowed to yet exist—when lifts could carry passengers in comfort.
He stopped to rest against a giant replica of a copper teapot with a curving spout like a beak, setting down the burden he’d been carrying. It was shameful that someone of his years, having reached sixty and one in this year 1912, should suffer such indignities. He should be settling down for the night with a stiff drink, not trotting up a set of ruddy stairs!
“All for king, country, and company,” he muttered.
Mopping sweat from his forehead, he wished he could reach the dampness lining his back and other unmentionable regions that his dark suit, by fortune, hid away. It was warm for November, and in this overheated land it seemed his body no longer knew how not to sweat. With a sigh, he turned weary eyes to an arched window. At this hour he could still make out the sloping outline of the pyramids, the stone shining beneath a full moon that hung luminous in the black sky.
Egypt. The mysterious jewel of the Orient, land of pharaohs, fabled Mamlukes, and countless marvels. For ten long years now, Archibald had spent three, four, even six months in the country at a time. And one thing was certain: he’d had his fill.
He was tired of this miserably hot, dry place. Thirty years past they had been ripe for becoming another conquest in His Majesty’s Empire. Now Egypt was one of the great powers, and Cairo was fast outstripping London, even Paris. Their people swaggered through the streets—mocking England as “that dreary little isle.” Their foods troubled his stomach. Their praying came at all times of day and night. And they delighted in pretending not to understand English when he knew they very well could!
Then there were the djinn. Unnatural creatures!
Archibald sighed again, running a thumb across a lavender G stitched into his kerchief. Georgiana had gifted it to him before they’d married. She liked these sojourns no more than he, being left in London, with nothing but servants to order about.
“Just a few more weeks, my dear.” A few more weeks and he would be on an airship heading home. How he would welcome seeing his “dreary little isle,” where it was a sensibly cold and rainy November. He’d walk its narrow streets and savor every foul scent. For Christmas, he would get smashingly drunk—on good, hard English whisky!
The thoughts lifted his spirits. Hefting his bundle, he started up again, marching to the hum of “Rule, Britannia!” But a spot of patriotism was no match for these vexatious stairs. By the time he reached the top, the vigor was leached from him. He stumbled to a stop before a set of tall doors made of dark, almost black wood, fitted into a stone archway, and bent hands to knees, huffing noisily.
As he stood, he cocked his head at a faint ringing. He’d heard the odd sound off and on now for weeks—a distant echo of metal on metal. He’d inquired of the servants, but most never caught it. Those who did claimed it was probably unseen djinn living in the walls, and suggested he recite some scripture. Still, the sound had to be coming from—
The call sent Archibald straight. Adjusting, he turned to find two men striding toward him. The sight of the first almost made him grimace, but he willed his face to composure.
Wesley Dalton reminded Archibald of some caricature of the aristocratic Edwardian: golden hair neatly parted, moustache waxed to fine points, and a self-assurance brimming from eyebrows to dimpled chin. Altogether, it was nauseating. Walking up, the younger man delivered a hearty clap to Archibald’s back that almost tipped him over.
“So I’m not the only one late to the company’s soirée! Thought I might have to give my apologies to the old man. But walking in with the little kaiser should save me from a striping!”
Archibald smiled tightly. Portendorf had been an English name for centuries. And it was Austrian, not German. But it was poor form to get riled by a jest. He offered greetings and a handshake.
“Just flew in from Faiyum,” Dalton related. That explained the man’s dress—a tan pilot’s suit with pants stuffed into black boots. He’d probably flown one of those two-man gliding contraptions so popular here. “I was relayed information of a mummy worth exploring. Turned out to be a hoax. Natives constructed it out of straw and plaster, if you can believe it!”
Archibald could quite believe it. Dalton was obsessed with mummies—part of proving his theory that Egypt’s ancient rulers were truly flaxen-haired relatives to Anglo-Saxons, who held sway over the