Maggie Fenton is the author of the recently released The Duke’s Holiday and also happens to pen steampunk romances under the name Margaret Foxe. Her steampunk romances are fabulous, but her latest book is quiet a bit lighter (and funnier). This is one I would recommend to fans of Tessa Dare and Julia Quinn. For my full review of The Duke’s Holiday, check out my post from Wednesday.
Ms. Fenton graciously provided me with a review copy and also took some time out of her busy writing schedule to answer a few of my questions. So, without further ado, I will let Ms. Fenton speak for herself and share a little bit about the inspiration behind her historical romance. Details about the giveaway and the interview below!
For a chance to win a e-book copy of The Duke’s Holiday, head over to Rafflecopter giveaway to enter to win. All you have to do is comment or share a tweet. The giveaway will run from May 30th until June 30th, 2014. The winner will be contact via email.
You’ve been writing a great steampunk romance series, The Elders and Welders Chronicles under the pseudonym, Margaret Foxe. Can you tell us a little about your decision to switch to historical romance with this new trilogy?
This all came about because of a severe case of writer’s block. I was working on the third book of The Elders and Welders Chronicles, Thief of Hearts, and getting nowhere fast. I had written most of The Duke’s Holiday a few years ago, around the same time as Prince of Hearts, the first book in my steampunk series, and was just sitting on it. I felt like I needed to do something writerly while I struggled with my writer’s block, so I got out The Duke’s Holiday manuscript, dusted it off, did a bit of editing, and decided to publish it under Maggie Fenton to see what happened. I didn’t expect it to do so well. It is totally blowing my steampunk series out of the water.
I plan on continuing my steampunk series under the pseudonym Margaret Foxe. I love that genre and the world I have created in the Chronicles. I am planning six books in total for that series, and after it ends, I have a few ideas for a mystery spin off series set in that imaginative universe. I also have in mind some other projects I’d like to undertake as Margaret Foxe, particularly a time-travel romance series and a fantasy romance series I’ve been kicking around in my head for years.
I also plan on writing many more witty historicals as Maggie Fenton. I cut my teeth on historical romance, and it has been a dream come true to publish in that genre. I’m still kind of reeling from the positive response The Duke’s Holiday has received.
The compulsive Duke was a great hero, and he stands out from the dashing rakes that saturate the genre. What was your inspiration for this unconventional hero?
I love heroes with a lot of quirks. Even in The Elders and Welders, my dark-and-brooding alpha males always have their fair share of idiosyncracies. I write what I like, and what I like can best be demonstrated by my taste in film and television. I love Sherlock, including the Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller, and Robert Downey Junior incarnations. I love Dr. Who (especially the Tennant years). I love Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory and Hugh Laurie’s House. I love old Columbo episodes and Adrian Monk. I love the IT Crowd and Blackadder and Fawlty Towers.
Basically, I’m just a big ole geek. But probably the main inspiration for Montford’s character comes from my adoration of the great screwball comedies of the 30’s and 40’s, like The Philadelphia Story and Bringing Up Baby. The latter was especially present in the back of my mind when writing The Duke’s Holiday. I just love the dynamic between Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in that movie. She leads him around by his nose, just like Astrid does to the Duke. If you haven’t seen Bringing Up Baby, watch it ASAP! It is one of my all time favorites.
The romance aspect was very much an “opposites attract” tale, and it results in a lot of humour on the road to happily-ever-after. Did you find this challenging to convey? What was the hardest part in getting to Monford and Astrid’s happily-ever-after?
This one really wrote itself for the most part. Reading through it now years after I wrote it, I wonder where in the world all that wit came from. It just sort of poured out of me as I immersed myself in the characters. The foot-and-ale race was inspired by both an article I read about 19th century country fairs in England and, oddly enough, some of the action sequences in Bedknobs and Broomsticks (love that movie, by the way).
The hardest part of this book was ending it. I have this problem with all the books I write, but The Duke’s Holiday was especially difficult. I was enjoying the ride so much I could have kept spinning out one pratfall and witty conversation after another. In fact, I had 200 more pages written, providing an alternate ending. Which was totally ridiculous. The book is already overly long at 500 pages. It took me forever to actually figure out a way to end it where I did.
You’re a self-published author. Can you elaborate a little on your writing process and your decision to step into the self-publishing world?
I think for me, really getting into my characters’ minds and personalities before I write a word is critical. I always create my characters and my setting first and let them rattle around in my imagination for a while before I start writing the story. Plot development is always secondary for me, as it seems to grow organically out of my characters’ interactions, for better or worse. I am definitely working on a more efficient way of balancing my love of character development with plot and story arc as I write Thief of Hearts, which is a lot more set-in-stone plot-wise than my previously published books. This is mainly because of the cliffhanger from A Dark Heart that set up a lot of the events in Thief of Hearts from which I can’t deviate. It has definitely been edifying trying to reconcile my writer’s instincts with the needs of the story.
As far as self-publishing goes, it is the best decision I ever made. I had tried the “traditional” route, sending out queries, etc. to agents a couple of years ago trying to get The Duke’s Holiday and an earlier incarnation of Prince of Hearts published. The whole process was disheartening and totally depressing, and my writerly self-esteem plummeted as I was rejected over and over again. So I set aside my writing aspirations and concentrated on my music career (got to pay them bills!).
When I got my iPad last summer, however, and started reading e-books, I began to notice that many of the books I was reading were self-published. I thought, well, if they can do it, why can’t I? So I got out Prince of Hearts, “steampunked” it, and put it up on Amazon. The rest is history. I am making great money as a self-pubbed author and enjoying every minute of it. As an indie author, you have to be author, publisher, editor, and marketer rolled into one, so it’s definitely been a learning experience. I’m a regular businesswoman – something I never dreamed I’d be.
Looking back on my journey, I think it is a testament to the way the whole publishing industry is being transformed by self-publishing. The traditional publishing establishment that rejected me is just not evolving fast enough to keep up with the virtual market. Instead of a handful of editors and agents being the arbiters of “good writing”, or at least “marketable writing”, communities of readers such as those found on Goodreads get to make up their own minds about what they want to read. And, judging from my sales and reviews, they want to read my work. I am more than happy to give it to them.
Who are your top historical romance influencers and what would you recommend to fans of The Duke’s Holiday.
I’ve read a lot of historical romance. I especially love Lisa Kleypas (who, by the way, is slated to write some new historicals very soon, thank God!), Julie Anne Long, Laura Lee Gurkhe, Elizabeth Hoyt, and Liz Carlyle, and they definitely inform my approach to romance in my steampunk series. But the two who really influenced the witty, breezy style of The Duke’s Holiday are Loretta Chase and Patricia Cabot.
I of course recommend reading all of these ladies’ works, but one of my all-time favorites is Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase. A Little Scandal by Patricia Cabot is also on my top-ten list. Not a lot of people realize this, but back in the day, Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries) wrote six historical romances as Patricia Cabot, and they are among the best historical romances I have ever read. They are funny and sexy, and I really wish she hadn’t stopped writing in the genre. I like them a lot better than her YA/NA works, and I recommend them highly. They are out of print and unavailable as e-books, as far as I know, but they are worth tracking down and reading.
Lastly, can you give us a teaser for the next two books in the trilogy?
If you couldn’t tell from their interactions in The Duke’s Holiday, Sebastian Sherbrook and Lady Katherine are destined to fall hard for each other. The problem is that she is married to his uncle, whom Sebastian loathes. But don’t worry, that little niggle will resolve itself. The third book is Viscount Marlowe’s story, which I am extremely excited about. He’s such a buffoon in The Duke’s Holiday, so I can’t wait to turn him into a romantic leading man. I don’t want to give too much away about either book, but I will say dogs are involved, as well as duels, cameo appearances by Astrid and Cyril, and plenty more covert readings of Le Chevalier D’Amour.
SNEAK PEAK OF ‘THIEF OF HEARTS’
Margaret is currently working on Thief of Hearts, the third book in The Elders and Welders Chronicles series. I for one cannot wait, but luckily Margaret has shared the first chapter so we can have something to make the wait a little more bearable…
Sahara Desert, 1888
HEX BARTHOLOMEW turned her face into the burning, unforgiving desert sun shining through the porthole window and tried to block out the chaos surrounding her – at least for the moment. She was at the ass-end of nowhere and knee-deep in trouble, and her odds of coming out alive were even longer than usual. Panicking would get her nothing but dead, a state she was determined to avoid at all costs.
The bright light seared away the worst of her anxiety until she was able to turn back to the task at hand with something resembling calm. She reached beneath the captain’s table and retrieved the small pearl handled pistol Janus’ men had failed to confiscate over the past few days. After checking to make sure it was fully loaded, she shoved the weapon into the discreet leather holster built into her right boot and sent up a quick prayer to the heavens that she wouldn’t need to use it. She was a horrible shot.
With the way her luck had gone lately, however, she wasn’t holding her breath on that account. The use of firearms was fast becoming an inevitability.
She strode out of the captain’s roost into the raw desert sunlight and crossed the burnished deck of the Amun-Ra. Simon was waiting for her on starboard side, his lean, sun-browned face set into grim lines behind brass-rimmed pilot’s goggles. He lifted the goggles off his head and handed them over to her, his gray eyes reflecting the same worry she’d been carrying around since Cairo. He didn’t like what was happening in the desert below any more than she did.
“Anything changed?” she asked, slipping the goggles on and adjusting the dials on the sides to bring the figures on the desert floor below them into focus. Simon had rigged the goggles with a multitude of functions, including the binocular-like ability to spy on people from great distances. It was one of the many useful devices the tinkerer had bestowed upon her over the years.
“Janus is growing more uneasy by the minute,” Simon replied in his lightly accented English. Neither American nor British in origin, his accent was as much a mystery as his surname. But after all they’d been through together, he was welcome to his secrets. God knew she had enough of her own without prying into someone else’s. And she had a feeling his were even worse than her’s, considering how she’d first met him two years ago in Baltimore.
She zoomed in on the hulking, blunt-featured man with the receding hairline and bad sunburn who’d plagued her life for the past few days. Harlan Janus. A mercenary who gave a bad name to all other mercenaries. A man with no honor whatsoever, who sold his services to the highest bidder. And this time, that bidder was the Souk, a consortium of smugglers, thugs, and general ne’er-do-wells who controlled Egyptian trade, legal and otherwise, at the behest of the Turkish Khedive. In the two years she’d spent in Egypt, she’d managed to steer clear of the Souk’s notice with a few well-placed bribes, a fast ship, and a hell of a lot of luck. But her luck had run out two days ago.
She shifted her focus to the man who had caused all of her recent trouble: her thrice-bedamned father. Ruddy-faced, barrel-chested and full of bluster, Hubert Bartholomew was hard to miss, even with the wisps of white that had begun to mute his fiery red curls. He stood wedged between a couple of Janus’ brutish subordinates and glanced uneasily between Janus and an envoy of Bedouin warriors. If thick-skinned Hubert was getting nervous, then things must truly be heading towards disaster.
Hex could feel the tension in the air, even from the deck of the Amun-Ra. It had been growing thicker and thicker ever since they’d moored late last night at their final destination, only to discover a rather alarming number of Bedouins setting up camp in the same place. Janus, bless his vile heart, had not expected or prepared for such an obstacle. His twenty-odd men might have a Western-styled arsenal at their disposal, but the Bedouins outnumbered them ten-to-one. Not even the most well armed mercenary relished his odds in combat with a Bedouin warrior, much less an army of them.
And Janus had to know that if push came to shove, he couldn’t count on Hex’s cooperation. Blackmail and coercion would only get him so far, even if he was backed by the Souk. If it came to a fight with a third party, Hex planned on remaining as neutral as Switzerland. And getting the hell out of there as fast as the Amun-Ra could fly.
If she could fly at all after last night’s spectacular malfunction, that was.
Janus said something to Omar, and the interpreter hesitated – no doubt because whatever Janus had told him was idiotic. After a fraught moment, Omar turned and translated Janus’ words to the Bedouin leader, a tall robed figure perched high on a festooned warhorse with an array of wicked-looking blades strapped over various parts of his body. Whatever Janus’s words had been, they obviously displeased the sheikh, who shouted something that made Omar blanch and cower.
Poor man. Omar was as unwilling a participant in this misadventure as she was. A “business associate” of her father’s, Omar had been in the wrong place at the wrong time (i.e. in the company of Hubert Bartholomew, which was always the wrong place to be) when Janus had come to collect on a debt Hubert owed the Souk. He’d only managed to save his neck by offering his services as an interpreter to Janus. Even Janus, thick as he was, had seen the value in this, as none of his crew spoke anything other than English – and that very badly indeed.
Despite Omar’s original dealings with Hubert, which were undoubtedly less than legitimate, the little opportunist had no business being caught up in this deadly tangle. Just another endangered life for which to damn her father if things went wrong.
Janus answered the Bedouin’s shouts with shouts of his own and gestured forcefully at the dunes behind him. Hex shivered inwardly as she studied the seemingly innocuous bumps in the otherwise flat desert landscape. After last night’s storm, however, “innocuous” was the last word she’d use to describe them. Covering the largest dune was a giant, gleaming glass-like mass in the shape of a gargantuan splatter of rain frozen in time. Simon had called it a fulgurite, a phenomenon caused by lightning striking and melting the sand, but the sheer size of the site was agitating Simon’s analytical mind. He claimed that a lightning strike of the magnitude needed to create such a giant anomaly was a scientific impossibility.
It was certainly peculiar. No one, including the Bedouins, who’d spent generations roaming the Sahara, had ever seen or heard of anything like it before. They’d been drawn to the area because of the inexplicable storm the evening before and seemed intent on remaining, which certainly put a spanner in Janus’ plans to pillage and plunder the secret tomb hidden beneath that petrified dune. The Bedouins were as determined to keep Janus out as Janus was determined to strong-arm his way in, and Hex could see no happy ending for either party.
“We could leave right now, you know,” Simon said softly. “Janus has forgotten us completely.”
Hex sighed and pushed back her goggles, glancing around the empty deck. Simon was right. All of Janus’ men were below, ready to be massacred by the Bedouins. And it would be no skin off her back if they were. She’d heard plenty about the atrocities Janus had committed in his long criminal career. Moreover, she’d had the pleasure of his company for the past two days – two days spent fearing for her virtue, such as it was, as well as her life – so she hadn’t the slightest compunction about leaving him to his fate. She knew what kind of men he and his associates were. She would be performing an act of altruism for all of humanity by leaving them behind to desiccate.
Yet there was Omar to consider … and her father. She glanced down at her gloved hands and flexed them at the knuckles, the click-clack of grinding metal cogs and wheels muted by the leather covering them. A familiar ball of angry resentment rose up inside her, choking her conscience, whispering at her to heed Simon’s advice. But she stuffed that ball of poison back down as quickly as it had come.
She was not that callous, not yet anyway.
“Much as it pains me, I cannot leave him behind,” she said with no small amount of bitterness. She handed the goggles back to him. “I’m sorry you were caught up in this, Simon.”
Simon’s mouth flattened into a hard line, but he nodded in understanding. He, like Omar, had been the victim of rotten timing when Hubert had shown up on the Amun-Ra with Janus and his men in tow, demanding to be ferried out into the desert. Simon had been doing her a favor that day by repairing one of the sun panels that fueled the Amun-Ra and had hardly expected to be press-ganged into a smuggler’s service.
“I cannot leave him behind without at least trying to rescue him,” she continued.
He sighed and ran his hand through his unkempt hair. “He doesn’t deserve you, Hex.”
“I don’t know. Sometimes I think we do deserve each other. I’m no angel, as you well know.”
“Just watch yourself down there.”
She patted her well-stocked boot. “Don’t you worry. I’ve faced worse than Harlan Janus,” she said with more bravado than she felt.
Simon glanced at her wryly. “And twenty mercenaries. And a tribe of angry Bedouins. And your father.”
“Thanks for reminding me. But I can take care of myself.”
“I know you can. But it’s not the people I’m worried about so much as that storm last night. That dune wasn’t hit by mere lightning,” he said.
“What else could it be?”
Simon stared intently towards the glassy mound, and she could tell the cogs of his brilliant mind were churning. “Something new,” he murmured, unable to disguise the curiosity from his voice.
That did not sound good. But she didn’t know what Simon could possibly be worried about, or why she too felt so unsettled. The lightning storm – or whatever those bright bursts of light had been on the horizon – had long passed before they’d even arrived at the site last night, and whatever lay buried in the secret tomb beneath the hill was four thousand years old and quite dead.
But, despite the blue sky, the storm still lurked in the atmosphere, like some slumbering dragon. The smell of ozone lay heavy in the air, and static electricity had sparked and crackled all around them since they had dropped anchor last night. Her instincts told her that something was … off, and she’d long ago learned to trust those instincts.
There were other worrisome things that Simon couldn’t explain away. The sun panel Simon had just repaired two days ago had malfunctioned yet again, hobbling the Amun-Ra. It was a coincidence Hex could have dismissed as unrelated to their present circumstances, had it not been for the inexplicable behavior of the ship’s compass and every timepiece on board the dirigible. Their dials had not stopped spinning in wild circles since they’d come within a mile of their present location, as if all the laws of physics had ceased to exist. It was just downright eerie.
“How much longer on repairing that panel?” she asked as she hoisted herself over the side of the dirigible and onto one of the collapsible emergency ladders Janus’ men had used earlier.
Simon tore his wandering mind from the dune and back to their most pressing concern. “At least a day.”
“Make it half a day, Simon. We won’t get far without it.”
“Aye aye, Captain,” he said, gifting her with a mock salute.
She rolled her eyes, gripped the sides of the ladder, and began the fifty-foot climb down to the desert floor. When she had two booted feet firmly planted in the sand, Simon hoisted the ladder out of the reach of unwanted stowaways and saluted her again.
She gave Simon a final wave and trudged towards the drama unfolding in front of the dunes. Omar saw her approach first and gave her a wide-eyed look of entreaty. As if she could somehow sort out this mess. Well, he was in for a grave disappointment on that count. The most she could do was bide her time and wait for a moment where Janus’ men were distracted enough to forget about their hostages. Preferably before any sort of bloodshed could commence.
Both Bedouins and mercenaries stirred uneasily when they too noticed her approach. Neither of the opposing factions knew what to make of her, a woman in leather breeches and Hessian boots who piloted a dirigible for a living, but she was used to that. Men tended to underestimate her because of her gender, and she was more than happy to let them.
“Thought I told you to wait onboard, woman,” Janus sneered.
She smiled her most serene smile, refusing to let him cow her. It wasn’t too difficult to do, since he was such an unmitigated ass. She reckoned his threats over the past few days were quite heartfelt, but it was just so hard to take the lout seriously.
She took the Bedouins’ flashing steel blades quite seriously indeed, however. She could see them glinting in the sun out of the corner of her eye. And she could feel the Bedouin leader’s obsidian-like eyes, the only part of his face not obscured by his elaborate black-checked headdress, studying her like some insect under one of Simon’s microscopes. A cold chill washed down her spine, despite the desert heat. She told herself to remain calm, though. She couldn’t afford to show any weakness in front of this nest of vipers.
“I was feeling lonely,” she said with a casual shrug. “And may I remind you of your deadline, Janus. Didn’t you say you had to make it back to Cairo by Friday? That’s in two days. The Amun-Ra is fast, but not that fast.” Well, it was when it wanted to be, even with a faulty sun panel. But she wasn’t about to tell Janus that. He coveted her ship enough as it was.
“I know what I said. We’ll be leaving by the morning,” Janus declared, shooting daggers in the Bedouins’ direction with his eyes.
Omar inched his way close to Hex’s side. “The sheikh claims this is a holy site, Miss Hex,” he said in an undertone for her ears only, gesturing nervously towards the petrified dune. “He says that Allah has wrought a miracle and that no infidel should disturb it.”
She glanced towards the sheikh, who continued to regard her with far too much interest. It was her hair that had the man so fascinated, she decided. It was even brighter than her father’s and was somewhat of a novelty in this part of the world. It attracted a lot of attention, which was of course undesirable in her line of work. But her last attempt at remedying her problem had left her with green hair. Not a flattering look. She’d thus developed a fondness for hats, all of which she’d left back in Cairo in Janus’ haste.
“And have you told him why we are here, then?” she asked.
Omar nodded jerkily. “He says the treasure of the ancient gods remains where it is. He is quite insistent on that, Miss Hex.”
“I bet he is,” Hex said, scrutinizing the sheikh just as closely as he was scrutinizing her. It was only fair she return the favor. She had dealt with a few Bedouin traders herself in the past, and though they were steeped in a fair amount of tradition and superstition, they were some of the canniest businessmen she’d met. The Bedouin camp may have stopped last night out of curiosity, but she was quite certain they weren’t staying to protect any holy site. The sheikh had no doubt swiftly deduced why a dirigible carrying a load of gun-toting ruffians was out in the remote reaches of the Sahara.
She turned to Janus. “If I were you, I would negotiate with him. He wants a cut.”
Janus’s sunburnt face scrunched up in a most unattractive manner. “I ain’t giving him nothin’.”
“Fine. It’s your funeral,” she said.
He grabbed her arm hard enough to bruise, and she heard her father bluster half-heartedly in protest at the rough treatment. “If it is, I’m taking your old man with me,” Janus spat. “I may have to keep you alive to pilot that death trap—”
“Hey!” she cried. No one insulted the Amun-Ra. Except her.
“But there’s nothing to keep me from gutting your father, other than your continued cooperation, woman.”
“My name is Miss Bartholomew, you pig,” she said in her calmest voice. “And you’ll have my cooperation. But you’re going to start a war with these people if you’re not careful,” she said, pointing towards the rather large gathering of hostile nomads surrounding them, “and you’re going to lose.”
“Yeah, but we’ll be taking a fair number with us,” he retorted, patting the two guns he had holstered at his hips.
Dear God, he was a cretin. “Tell me you aren’t that stupid, Janus,” she chided.
He scowled down at her. “I can’t go back to Cairo without that dosh,” he hissed, jerking his thumb in the direction of the hidden tomb. “I’d be as good as dead to my employers. And even if I cut a deal, who’s to say these savages won’t turn on us the minute our backs are turned?”
She nearly snorted. Janus thought the Bedouins were the savages? Really? “Talk about the pot calling the kettle black,” she muttered. “That’s exactly what you plan to do to them.”
He shrugged, unaffected by this revelation of his hypocrisy. “So what should I do, since you’re so bloody smart, then?”
She gave him her drollest look. “You are asking my advice? Are you serious, Janus? Solve your own problems. I’m just here to make sure you don’t get my father killed.”
Without waiting for his response, she pushed past him in the direction of Hubert, who was looking at her with an expression of fatherly concern that never failed to piss her off. The big old liar. If he was so concerned for her, he’d never brought his troubles to her doorstep in the first place, expecting her to sort them out. She rued the day she’d ever allowed him back into her and Helen’s lives. At the time, however, she’d been in no state to make intelligent choices. She’d just wanted out of Baltimore and away from all the mistakes she’d made there as quickly as possible.
“Hex …” he whispered as Janus and the sheikh resumed their strained negotiations. She noticed that Janus was taking her advice after all and offering the Bedouin leader a cut of the plunder. The sheikh, just as she had suspected, was quick to change his tune now that Janus had caught on to the game.
She glared at her father. “Don’t start,” she muttered.
“I just wanted to say thank you…”
Unbelievable. “I don’t want your thanks. Or your apologies.” Not that he’d offered any of those yet. “You didn’t even ask before you volunteered my services.”
“You knew I wouldn’t have agreed? You’re damn right I wouldn’t have,” she hissed. “I told you to stay away from me, and you drag me into this.”
Hubert’s brow creased, as if she were the one being unreasonable. “Don’t worry, my dear,” he whispered. “Things will work out. Trust me. As soon as we have the treasure aboard the Amun-Ra…”
She snorted. Of course. Of course he had put her through two days of hell because he was hatching some scheme. Yet again. “Trust you? Trust you?” she hissed. “I knew you were up to something. It would be too easy for you to just pay off your debt. You think you’re going to double cross Janus, don’t you? And use my ship to do it?”
He gave her that pleading look that she’d never been able to resist as a young girl. She hated that look. “The entrance to the burial chamber is undisturbed. Sealed tight. Omar’s seen it with his own eyes. No one has been inside in four thousand years. Think of it, my dear, if it’s anything like what Petrie has been finding down south! We’ll be set for life.”
She scowled in the direction of the interpreter. And to think she’d felt sorry for the little weasel. Innocent bystander her ass. “So Omar is in on whatever foolish con you’re trying to run. I should have known.”
“All we have to do is wait for the right moment, my dear, once the treasure is aboard.”
There were so many things wrong with his plan – foremost among them not even knowing exactly what was in the tomb – that it was hard to know how to argue. Not that she was going to argue at all, for that would only encourage him. “You assume that I will fall in line with your schemes, but I’m not a little girl anymore.”
Hubert’s eyes dropped ever so briefly down to her gloved hands, clenched angrily at her sides, and some shadow – perhaps guilt, perhaps mere frustration – passed over his expression. But it was gone in the blink of an eye, too quickly for it to count at all.
“My only goal is to get the four of us back to Cairo,” she growled. “Alive. But if you fail to follow my orders when they come, I will leave you to your fate. My duty to you has its limits. I’m not dying for you, father, and neither is Simon.”
“Do you not believe me?”
Now he was definitely frustrated. He glared at her petulantly. “I believe you,” he said in a low growl, something hard and just a bit cruel glinting deep in his eyes.
She knew that look well – the look of the true Hubert, hidden behind all of that Scotch charm – and she knew that she was going to have to watch her back even more diligently. Hubert was going to attempt to have his way come hell or high water, even if it meant sacrificing her. He’d done it before, and he’d do it again.
He no doubt thought her insistence over the years that only she could pilot the Amun-Ra was a con of her own. It wasn’t, and he would find that out the hard way if he decided she was expendable. Hubert was always finding things out the hard way, as his greed inevitably trumped his foresight.
She glanced longingly towards the Amun-Ra, its sleek, gleaming mahogany hull hovering above the shimmering desert sands, suspended by three colossal, billowing thermal ballonets the same soft blue color as the sky. For a moment, she was tempted to reconsider Simon’s advice. Even with one of the sun panels down, she and Simon could make a clean break from all of this, run far enough away that Janus could never catch them. She really didn’t owe her father anything, did she? Especially when she knew all too well he was going to stab her in the back the first opportunity he had?
Only the thought of Helen kept her rooted to the desert floor. If she abandoned her father, she’d never be able to look her little sister in the eye again. Damn it.
Well, if thinking of Helen had worked to rouse her conscience, it might do the same for her father’s. He, after all, actually loved Helen. “Just remember Helen,” she murmured to him. “Remember she’d not want you to endanger yourself. Or me.”
That petulant look returned, but the hard edge in his eyes was blunted at the mention of his favorite daughter. He huffed out a breath as if greatly put-upon. “I will be careful. And careful of you. How could you doubt it?”
She barely restrained her eye roll. She doubted everything that came out of that lying mouth of his, and it didn’t escape her notice that he’d not promised to set aside his scheme. But his half-hearted assurances would have to be enough. For now.
Janus and the sheikh had reached some sort of agreement in the meantime and were now mustering the troops in the direction of the dunes, where crates – some filled with tomb-raiding paraphernalia, some ready to be packed full of loot – sat waiting to be put to use. This was not Janus’ first job pillaging priceless historical artifacts from their less-than-eternal resting places, so his men got straight down to business, prying open the crates with crowbars and rummaging around for their tools.
An equal number of the sheikh’s men dismounted their horses to join in the effort, arming themselves with shovels, picks, steam torches and rope, alongside their blades. In the end, after a look at the narrow crevice Omar led them to, hidden behind a large sandstone rock at the base of the petrified dune, it was decided that two of the sheikh’s men and two of Janus’ men would accompany Janus, Omar, and Hubert on the first foray into the dark passageway.
Needless to say, by the time this last negotiation was worked out, the sun was at its zenith in the sky, and Hex was dying of boredom.
Men. And they thought the female sex were indecisive.
She propped herself up against the sandstone rock while she waited and kicked her boot against the petrified sand covering the dune. It was as hard as the rock at her back, millions of particles of sand melted and fused together into a quartz-like amalgam.
She reached out and touched the base of the fulgurite with the bare skin peeking between the sleeve of her leather jacket and glove. Static electricity sparked at the contact, and she recoiled with a muttered oath before trying again. The surface was sizzling, hotter than the normal sand surrounding it, as if still churning with the energy from last night’s electrical storm. So very strange.
“You,” Janus said roughly, nudging her shoulder with something hard to gain her attention. He pushed a steam torch and load of small, round flares in her arms and shoved her in the direction of Omar, who hovered at the narrow entrance to the tomb.
She balked, catching onto Janus’ plan. “Oh no, I don’t think so.”
“You’ll go down first with the interpreter and set up the lighting for the rest of us.”
He jerked her by the arm, giving her no choice but to stumble into Omar. “Climbing into dark, dangerous places is your specialty, ain’t it?” Janus demanded. “Get to it.”
She glared at Hubert until he flushed and averted his eyes. Really, he had no discretion whatsoever. He’d obviously been loose with his tongue again for Janus to know anything about her childhood occupation. She jerked away from Janus and Omar with her load of flares and walked to the entrance.
“Fine,” she muttered, peering into the darkness.
“Be careful, Miss Hex,” Omar said. “There are many ways to fall and never be found again.”
“And you know this how?” she bit out, wanting him to admit his scheming out loud.
He paled under his sun-darkened skin, unable to meet her eyes. “Because I’ve been down here before with my cousin Achmal. Only I came out alive,” he admitted in a whisper, knotting a long rope around his waist, then looping it around her own. “Once we reach the bottom of the chamber, we will be fine. It is the climb down that is dangerous. The shaft is filled with holes.”
She lifted her arms as he wrapped her in the makeshift harness. “Those holes are there for a reason, you know. They were put there to prevent thieves like you from stealing from the dead.”
Omar raised a single bushy black brow. “Don’t you mean thieves like us, Miss Hex?” he asked.
She narrowed her eyes. “Watch it, Omar. I’m your only way out of this desert, so try not to piss me off any more than you already have. And I am a legitimate businesswoman.”
She gave Omar credit for not snorting out loud, but she could see his incredulity in the soaring pitch of his brow. “Mostly,” she amended, thinking of the various jobs she’d been forced to take on over the past two years that had toed the line of legality – not that there was much law to be had in Egypt to begin with, save what suited the Souk to enforce. “But even I don’t steal from the dead, Omar.”
With that parting shot, she gave Omar a subtle shove forward. “After you.” There was no way in hell she was going first.
Grumbling, Omar crouched down at the opening and clicked on his steam torch. After the device had whirred to life, sending a beam of white light down into the narrow chamber, he crawled inside. She waited until the slack line of rope connecting them went taut, then followed him into the blackness with her own steam torch.
The shaft was even narrower and steeper than she had expected, and she found herself scooting forward belly-first, bracing herself against the pull of gravity. Periodically, Omar would halt their descent, and they would set up the round flares Janus had provided them on the outer edges of their path and around the rims of the bottomless pits Omar had warned her about.
Those yawning, black maws sent cold chills down her spine, despite the stifling, dusty heat of the shaft. She dropped stones down those pits to gauge the depths, but she never heard the sound of them reaching the bottom. The chasms were deep indeed, and at the bottom of one of them, Omar’s own cousin moldered in eternal slumber, more lost to the world than the ancient corpse whose tomb they were about to disturb.
After what seemed like hours climbing deeper and deeper into the earth, they reached the end of the shaft. Omar undid the rope around his waist and disappeared over the edge, and for a moment Hex feared he’d fallen down one of the chasms. A second later, his steam torch shone on her from below, followed by the snick and hiss of newly lit flares, illuminating the void. She scrambled to the edge and looked down. Omar stood below her about five feet on a mound of rubble at the mouth of a large, rectangular corridor stretching into darkness. In the flickering light of the flares, she could just make out shadowy figures decorating the walls nearest them in deep ochres, pale yellows and pitch blacks.
She whistled in astonishment as she jumped to the chamber floor, dust rising all around her, the smell of ozone even stronger than it had been before. Even the filter provided by her Iron Necklace was no defense against the gritty atmosphere. Coughing into her kerchief, she marked Omar’s path with her torch as he began setting the flares along the corridor’s walls, flooding the chamber with a delicate, flickering light and illuminating the almost otherworldly artwork – alien yet elegant, from a culture lost in time. She could already tell even in the semi-darkness that the paintings on the walls were in extraordinary condition. They were an archaeological goldmine.
She doubted Janus or her father would much care about preserving the historical record, however. They were after things they could carry out and sell to the highest bidder.
Marked by a wide wooden lintel inscribed with more intricate hieroglyphs, the entrance to the burial chamber stood at the end of the long corridor, blocked by a six foot tall slab of sandstone cut so precisely the seams of the doorway were nearly invisible.
“Well, that looks impossible to move,” she murmured.
“Have faith, Miss Hex,” Omar said, holding up a pick as if this would solve everything. “Allah will help us if we are patient.”
She snorted at this. “Right. Well, good luck with that. I don’t know about Allah, but Janus isn’t known for his patience. In fact, he’s going to be mighty impatient when he sees this.”
Omar ignored her and began to chip away at the edge of the sandstone experimentally, the clang of metal and stone ricocheting off the walls of the chamber.
The results were microscopic.
She crossed her arms and leaned against the slab to watch his exercise in futility, determined to lend as little help as possible. A second later, she leapt away from the stone in surprise, rubbing her singed shoulder.
“What the hell? It’s boiling hot, Omar!”
Omar paused in his chipping campaign and placed his palm against the sandstone. A bolt of static electricity flashed like a miniature bolt of lightning at the contact, blinding bright in the dim chamber. He cursed in Arabic and jerked his hand away. He gave her a worried look.
“That’s not normal, is it?” she asked.
Before he could answer, a dull thunk sounded, followed by another, and Omar’s eyes grew so wide they were in danger of falling out of their sockets completely. She feared her own eyes were doing no better. The tomb was eerie enough without having to contend with mysterious noises. She turned her torch towards the shaft at the far end of the corridor, half expecting Janus and the others to appear, but nothing but dust motes danced in the beam of light.
The thunk came again, and her skin crawled as the horrifying truth dawned on her. The sound was much too nearby to be coming from the shaft. In fact, it sounded as if…
As if it were coming from the other side of the sandstone slab. Which was… which had to be…
Thunk. Thunk. A fine shower of debris fell from the lintel atop the doorway, disturbed by the vibrations coming from within the sealed chamber.
Omar shot her a look of utter terror.
One more thunk, and she nearly jumped out of her skin. “It can’t be!” she whispered.
Omar backed away from the slab, his body literally humming with fear. When yet another thunk sounded and the half-rotted lintel fell to the floor in a heap of dust, he dropped his pick, turned around, and fled towards the shaft.
She couldn’t help but feel that Omar had the right idea with his display of rank cowardice. Things had just gotten way too bizarre for her liking. She turned to follow him.
But before Omar could start scrambling to the surface, he screamed out in horror and collapsed in a heap of robes as beams of light caught him in their crosshairs. Hex nearly screamed as well, until she realized it was just the arrival of Janus and the rest of the party. Perhaps the thuds had come from them after all. She breathed a huge sigh of relief and nearly laughed out loud. She’d never thought she’d be glad to see Harlan Janus.
Janus dropped into the chamber and stared at Omar’s prone form with disgust. The little schemer had flung himself into a corner, arms thrown over his head, whimpering incoherently. “What’s wrong with him?” he demanded of Hex.
Hex had no answer that didn’t sound completely cracked.
But Janus soon had his answer, and Hex’s momentary relief crumbled. The next thunk from the other side of the burial chamber was so loud that it cut through the din of Janus’ men, and the walls shuddered in its wake. It was enough to freeze even Janus in place. For a few tense seconds, all that could be heard in the suffocating chamber were Omar’s quiet whimpers in the corner.
Then the thunk came again. Rubble rained down on them from the ancient ceiling, and the sandstone slab shifted forward an inch.
A collective gasp arose from crew of men.
She saw her father inch his way back towards the exit, clearly anxious to save his own worthless skin while everyone else was distracted. One of Janus’ men pushed him out of the way, however, and disappeared up the shaft himself.
“What the hell is going on?” Janus finally managed to spit out. She noticed with satisfaction that he was looking a bit green about the gills.
She was, of course, terrified herself. But at the same time, the situation seemed so absurd she had to be dreaming the whole thing. It was exactly like something she would have read in one of the dime novels she used to buy back in Baltimore.
“This is why you don’t steal from the dead, Janus,” she said dryly. “The tomb is obviously cursed.”
She was only halfway jesting.
He didn’t disagree with her. He too began to back his way towards the shaft, palming the revolver around his waist.
The two Bedouins had wisely exchanged Janus’ trowels for their blades and were the only ones not scrambling towards the shaft. It was as if they were preparing for battle. With a mummy. They were obviously insane. She was insane, to even be entertaining the idea of a… a mummy actually existing.
The more logical explanation was that this was somehow part of Hubert’s scheming, but one look at her father’s terrified face and she knew this couldn’t possibly be the case.
Janus seemed to come back to himself enough to remember that he needed her alive, for he grasped her arm and began pulling her back with him. She didn’t stop him. Janus was her fastest ticket out of this dime novel, and she was more than happy to use it. She didn’t fancy sticking around for what happened next.
But she didn’t have a choice in the matter. Just as they reached the mouth of the shaft, a deafening boom filled the chamber, and she spun around just in time to see the sandstone slab that had blocked the entrance to the burial chamber literally fly through the air. It crashed into the ceiling, dislodging a worrisome amount of debris, then landed with another loud thunk right at the feet of the Bedouin warriors some twenty paces away.
Clouds of dust and the acrid, metallic tang of ozone permeated the chamber, momentarily blocking out the glow of the flares. When the dust finally settled, she glanced towards the tomb’s entrance, now open and bathed in shadows. Dread settled into her bones.
Nothing… human could have moved that stone, could have sent it flying through the air. It was six feet tall and three feet thick, for heaven’s sake.
The Bedouins must have come to a similar conclusion, for they crouched low behind the stone in an attempt to hide. She couldn’t blame them.
One of the Bedouins shouted something towards the shadows. Her understanding of Arabic was very limited, but she caught a lot of references to Allah and smiting and false gods. The usual. She had to commend the man for sheer bravado, if nothing else.
When a voice from the shadows actually answered the Bedouin’s imprecations moments later, however, she nearly whimpered just like Omar. The disembodied voice was deep and echoed off the corridor’s walls, speaking in a language that even the Bedouins didn’t seem to understand.
She hoped to God it wasn’t Ancient Egyptian.
The voice paused. Then it spoke again, this time closer and louder as something shuffled in the shadows. It took her a long time to realize it was speaking in a different language. Yet another one that no one understood.
Janus pulled out his revolver and aimed it at the burial chamber, though something told her that a gun wasn’t going to help him out of this one.
The voice came again, and this time it sounded a bit… exasperated? And it was speaking French. She recognized the language well enough, though she didn’t understand a word of it.
French. Somehow she hadn’t expected ancient Egyptian mummies to be fluent in that particular language. But she was far from being able to find comfort in this. It was yet one more disturbing layer to the mystery.
When the voice was met with nothing but stunned silence, it growled ominously, and the shadows shifted.
Janus tensed by her side even more, and she froze and sucked in her breath when the figure of a man began to emerge from the tomb. He bore no resemblance to the raggedy, macabre illustrations of the mummies in her dime novels, which was a relief. Instead, he seemed to have more in common with the Greek statuary she’d once seen when she and her father had cased the British Museum years ago on a job. The figure was easily taller than Janus, and molded in hyper-perfect lines that she didn’t think existed outside of chiseled marble. Her former husband had certainly not resembled this… exemplary creature when he’d shed his clothes.
She didn’t know whether the sound that emerged from her throat was caused by her terror or the realization that the man emerging from the burial chamber was as naked as one of those statues, wearing nothing but dust and ash. Absolutely, totally naked. And he was by all appearances quite real, neither a monster of antiquity or a marble god, but rather a man with smooth, pale skin and dark, wavy hair that covered his head… and the dangly bits lower down she was trying desperately not to notice.
Though she did notice.
Her former husband’s dangly bits were certainly not measuring up in that department either.
She was ogling a naked man who had just emerged from a four thousand year old tomb that, judging from the size of that stone, had most definitely not been opened in millennia. This was obviously some sort of horrible nightmare.
Or a very, very good dream. He was, after all, the finest specimen of manhood she’d ever come across, even with those uncanny eyes. Amber eyes that practically glowed in the dim chamber. She shuddered. Nothing human had eyes like that.
Janus must have come to a similar conclusion as well, for he cocked his revolver and fired. The sound of the gunshot was so loud she covered her ears with her hands and cringed as more rubble fell from the ceiling. She hoped he didn’t bury them all.
The man – or whatever he was – staggered back a step and clutched at his chest. He glared in Janus’ direction with his unnatural eyes. When he dropped his hand from his chest, she expected to see a gaping bullet wound – anything – but there was nothing. His chest was as unblemished and as perfect as before.
Which was impossible. Unless Janus had missed.
Though he hadn’t. Had he?
The man’s eyes widened when he noticed her, and the area around his cheeks seemed to darken, as if he was blushing.
Which was also impossible, though the next thing he did was reach down and cover his dangly bits with his hands as best he could, as if protecting his modesty.
Then he spoke again, this time in a language she could understand.
“Look, I don’t mean to be a bother,” he drawled in the toniest Queen’s English she’d ever heard, “but might you shoot at me after I’m clothed? There is a lady present, after all.” The way he paused before the word “lady”, and the dubious glance he aimed in her direction, however, suggested his doubt in this matter.
She was too traumatized to be offended. Almost. She gasped in outrage.
No one, however, moved to provide him with clothing. They’d seen him take a bullet in the chest without batting an eyelash, after all, and toss a ton of sandstone across the chamber as if it were a feather pillow.
“Who are you?” Janus finally barked out. “What the hell are you?”
The man looked puzzled and a little disoriented by the questions. He forgot his nakedness and clutched at the side of his head. He staggered a little, and his granite-hewn jaw clenched, as if just thinking about how to answer Janus was painful. He seemed very human in that moment.
“You know, I have no bloody idea,” the man finally said in a small voice that wasn’t god-like at all. He locked eyes with Hex once more, and she could see the panic swiftly rising deep within those inhuman depths. “Hex, I don’t know who I am!” he cried.
Then his eyes rolled into the back of his head and he pitched forward in a dead faint, a cloud of dust rising all around him.
She stared blankly at his pale, perfectly sculpted rear, which was impossible to fully appreciate at the moment. The roar of her own racing pulse filled her ears, and bile rose in her throat as her body finally responded to the shock of the last few minutes. The rising tide of dread, of wrongness, threatened to overwhelm her completely. This was no dream.
And the handsome mummy knew her name.
*Posted updated June 5, 2014.