John Farnley, reluctant Lord and Peer, agrees to fly Professor Entwistle and Miss Sylvia Armley on their expedition, for the usual fees. It was planned as a straightforward trip to Sudan searching under the Saharan sky for obscure Nubian pyramids where they would hopefully unearth new archaeological remains.
But first they find a desperate woman, a dying man, and the ominous threat of mercenaries left leaderless after the recent colonial wars, mercenaries who are also interested in the treasures that might be hidden within the pyramids. And what could this have to do with the stories of djinn?
Trapped by an aether storm that left their aether flyer powerless, the companions work desperately to find out the secrets of the pyramids as the threat of the mercenaries grows.
Could this have anything to do with the forbidden knowledge of Hammerhand’s creation? Will the courage of John Farnley, the knowledge of Professor Entwistle, and the sharpshooting skills of Sylvia Armley save them? Or will it be the secret locked in the bronze figures?
“Good afternoon, won’t you sit down?” Lady Clara Farnley indicated a chintz covered chair and turned to the butler. “Please could you bring tea and refreshments.”
Miss Adelia Davenport took a seat and pulled a notebook and pen from her commodious reticule. “Thank you for agreeing to see me, Lady Farnley, especially after your recent loss.”
Clara managed a smile. Her mother had braved the new-fangled telephone and spent several hours explaining to Clara why she would help out the daughter of an old friend with an interview with The Lady magazine. She hadn’t mentioned it to her brother-in-law, the new Lord Farnley, and she wasn’t sure what he would think. “My mother spoke very highly of you.”
Adelia readied her pen. “Your late husband died very suddenly I believe.”
“Yes, it was a great shock.” Lady Clara kept her composure with an effort. The reminders of the loss of her husband still stung.
“How did it happen?” Adelia asked with a blandly enquiring expression.
Clara took a deep breath. That was an incredibly impertinent question, but how to answer? The woman in front of her, barely older than a schoolgirl, had relentlessly pursued this interview and now was demanding inappropriate answers. She was saved as Leighton returned with the tea tray. “Thank you, Leighton.” She watched as Leighton set the tray down on a mahogany side table and poured the tea before leaving. “It was a dreadful shock when my late husband died so unexpectedly. Fortunately my brother-in-law, Lord John Farnley, was able to return home immediately. He was a very successful aether pilot and he flew all over the world.” Clara gently stirred her tea. “He has frequently been out of the range of telegrams, but fortunately our man of business managed to track Lord John down in Munich.” She watched Adelia add two large sugar lumps to her tea. “I believe he was returning from piloting an academic expedition to Greece. Would you like a petit four?”
Adelia made some notes before helping herself to a tiny cake. “You must miss your late husband very much. How did you meet him?”
“I was helping at a village fete in support of missionary work in East Africa.” Clara smiled at the memory. She had been hot, flustered and exasperated when she had dashed towards the tea tent with a box of tea and collided with someone so handsome that it had made her blink. “He takes, that is, he took a great interest in the local charitable causes.” She hadn’t recognised him at first, as she had only seen him at a distance, and had scolded him for being in the way like she would have scolded any ordinary gentleman. “He had the most exquisite manners.” He had insisted on carrying the box of tea for her, saying that a delicate creature should not carry such burdens. “I couldn’t but help have a favourable impression of him.”
Adelia made some notes. “But you were used to moving in the same social circles, I believe.”
Clara kept her face blandly polite with an effort. “Indeed. My late husband had a title and considerable estates. I was the second daughter of a country doctor. In fact, it proves my point about Lord Nicholas’ excellent manners. He never alluded to the differences in our backgrounds.”
“He sounds a perfect gentleman,” Adelia said, scribbling furiously.
“Indeed he was,” Clara said, with a strained smile. She was not going to discuss her dead husband’s flaws.
“And he asked you to marry him?” Adelia said. “You must have been grateful.”
Clara felt a strong urge to dump her earl grey tea over Adelia’s wretched notebook. “I was very much in love with Lord Nicholas. When he was so kind as to propose to me, I did not feel gratitude, I felt loved and adored.” She watched Adelia’s pen race over the page with some misgiving.
“You were not blessed with children,” Adelia said. She looked carefully over Clara’s tightly corseted waist and drew her own conclusions. “So your brother-in-law inherits everything.”
“Lord John inherits the title, yes.” Clara said, refusing to be drawn on any details.
“And what is your role now?” Adelia asked. “What does your future hold?”
“My role will remain the same,” Clara said, “At least for the foreseeable future. It is of greatest importance that a household such as Farnley Grange has strong direction for the household staff. The staff take their tone from the family, as you know. When Lord Nicholas was alive, I was the captain of the domestic ship, the leader of the home and I provided a haven in a hostile world, just as any wife would do, regardless of rank. As Lord John may still be called away on his pilot duties, it is of utmost importance that I continue the direction of the household.”
In the air hung the unsaid words, ‘until Lord John marries’. Adelia made some more notes. “I can see the evidence of Lord John’s travels. Is that vase Chinese?”
“It’s Japanese,” Clara said. She always adored the rich colours and delicate gilding. “It’s Satsuma Ware. I believe Lord John actually received it as a gift in Malaya.”
“And that looks American.” Adelia stared at the richly coloured rug that was thrown so casually over a footstool.”
“It came from Chile, when Lord John had a stayover in Santiago,” Clara said. “It’s very hardwearing, and made from wool from the native alpaca.” She smiled. “I am not merely the one giving direction to the cook and housekeeper as the leader of the household. I am a curator of treasures.”
“Lord John is quite the adventurer, isn’t he?” Adelia said. “He must be grateful to know that he will be coming back to a well-tended home. Are you close?”
The blatant question of whether Lord John would now inherit Clara as a wife along with the lands and title was a little too much for Clara. She stood. “It has been such a pleasure speaking with you, Miss Davenport. It is such a shame that I have so little time to spare under these circumstances. I shall ring for our butler to show you out.”
“Perhaps we could arrange another time?” Adelia said, quickly stuffing her pen and notepad back into her reticule.
“I’ll be in touch,” Clara smiled politely. “Unfortunately I have found myself unexpectedly busy dealing with the aftermath of my husband’s passing. I will certainly let you know the next time I’m in London.”
Adelia managed an answering smile, knowing that Clara was unlikely to return to London for some time. “Thank you for seeing me, Lady Farnley. I look forward to our next interview.”
“As do I,” lied Clara. “Ah, here’s Leighton to show you out.” She waited until she heard the front door shut on Miss Adelia Davenport and then sagged back against the cushions. Now she was alone, she was able to cry.
John ran his hand over the gazetteer. There was a lot less about Sudan than he would expect. He wondered what he was getting into. He poured himself a brandy and soda and read through the half column of text. The book was out of date, as it claimed that the country was still under the control of the Mahdi. Well, Kitchener had done his stuff, the British were now established in Khartoum and it was technically safe to travel. John took another sip of his brandy and soda. One part of the closely typed text struck him: it is estimated that since 1885 more than three-fifths of the population have perished through war, famine and slave-trading. They were headed away from the worst of the troubles, but what would they find? He closed the heavy book and stood, taking his glass in his hand and wandered over the window.
The London fog had fallen again. Thick tendrils wound their way around the streetlamp next to the window and the familiar, stinging smell crept in through the chinks in the casement. It would be good to get away from the damp of London. He peered down at the scurrying figures rushing home. It wasn’t even dinner time and it was already dark and dismal. John pulled the curtains across and went back to his desk.
He didn’t pick up the gazetteer, but instead watched the flames flickering in the hearth. He was going to be paid good money to fly Professor Entwistle out to find ancient Nubian pyramids, and he needed that money. He was getting away from the upheaval and chaos of his inheritance. And he was at least going to get some sun.
John poured himself another brandy and soda. He normally didn’t bother drinking until after dinner, but today had brought yet more bills left by his late brother. When would it end? Yesterday one of his late brother’s mistresses had visited at lunchtime and had screaming hysterics on the doorstep when barred from seeing his late brother’s widow. The journey to Sudan would not only mean sun, payment and possibly gold. It would be a welcome escape.
John looked back at the sparse information in the gazetteer. He felt a cad leaving Clara to deal with any intrusions, although she had dealt with hysterical ladies with greater aplomb than he had ever managed. It wasn’t just that nagging at him, though. Professor Entwistle was talking about the knowledge that could be there. Knowledge of the sort that had sent a monster into the London Mists only a few weeks ago and had led to the death of his brother, among many more.
John pushed aside the last half of his brandy and soda. Would any knowledge found be worth the fees and potential treasure? He wasn’t in a position to judge. He had some aether heaters in the attics and an hour before dinner. He could get them out and give them a quick look over before he needed to get changed. It was much better to stick to the practical. Anything mystical could wait.
“They always go over the top.” Dad turned away from the lounge window. “I don’t know who they think they’re impressing.”
“There must be yards and yards of the things,” Mum said. “Or metres or whatever. They’re not cheap, you know, not even in Aldi.”
Sandra drifted over to the window. The family across the street had swathed their house liberally with fairy lights – inside and out. The colours twinkled as they changed, spinning around the door and window frames and the miniature conifers in the front garden.
“Look at the way that they change,” Dad said. “That’s technology, that is.”
“It’s an app,” Sandra said, staring at the lights. They swirled and danced, echoed by their reflections in the cars parked in the drive and cast coloured shadows on the snow.
“They must have money to burn,” Mum said. “Those apps are expensive. And you need the phone to go with it.”
Sandra didn’t answer but instead watched the sequence chasing over the porch and across to the fuschias.
“I wonder what it does to their electric,” Dad said. “It must put the bill up something fierce. He frowned. “You won’t catch me wasting money like that, not for a few days when there are other things you can be spending on.”
“Or just putting the money away,” Mum said. “You never know when it would come in useful.”
Sandra looked around. As usual, her parents had only decorated the lounge, and the dusty paper streamers hung, sagging, across the ceiling. Faded tinsel wound around the miniature artificial Christmas tree. It was older than Sandra and beginning to show its age as the tinsel dropped. “You’ll need a new Christmas tree next year,” she said.
“No, it will do,” Dad said. “It’s not like you’re a little kid anymore. You’re moving out next week, for your fancy new job. I hope you’ve thought of all the expenses. You won’t be able to waste money, you know, not when you’re starting out.”
Mum nodded. “We’ve always been careful with the decorations, and it hasn’t hurt us. Some of these decorations are older than you. And there’s nothing wrong with them.”
Sandra thought of her skint friend, with the bright bells made of egg boxes and foil, the snowflake wreaths from thin sandwich bags and the newspaper garlands wound with cheap, bright tinsel. She looked back at the lights across the road. Their generous sparkle lit up the entire section of the street. “I’ll be careful.”
“Anyway, you’ll be back for Christmas next year, at least,” Dad said. “You’ll miss us.”
The lights across the road were reflected in cars on both sides of the street. The neighbours on either side had their lights reflecting with them, and mingled with the fireworks over head as they marked the New Year. The bright chaos made her smile. “I’ll be celebrating in the new flat,” Sandra said. “And I’ll have every room filled with fairy lights.”