“I believe the speculation arises from the similarities in form,” Campbell said.
He stood before a heavy table spread with low drawers of zoological specimens. Campbell, investor and biological enthusiast, had been a member of the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra for five years without attaining any standing of note. His audience today with the Brotherhood’s most prestigious guest was as close to prominence as he had yet come.
The woman seated at the table was not as restrained, running her fingers down the gold and brown scales of the exotic reptiles. Her skin was so weathered and brown as to make her age indistinguishable. They were on the hunt for lost continents, a perennial favorite of the Brotherhood’s projects. The sunken lands were said to be home to the forgotten golden ages of man -- Lemuria, Hyperborea, Mu, Atlantis. Their current tools: Campbell’s private collection of legless skinks. Panya felt a whimsical affection for the specimens, the well-preserved skins stuffed, stitched, and pinned. She had once received such meticulous treatment herself.
“These are specimens of the Indian genus Nessia?” she said, brown fingers rested lightly on one drawer, then another. “And these the Madagascan Acontias? Very well, let us have the map.”
The map was brought out with a tray of tea and biscuits and a calling card in a silver tray. The tray was given to Panya, who took it graciously as the mistress of the house.
The maid’s name was Mary, and she had once observed indiscreetly that she would prefer death over life eternal, if only her youthful face were spared the extremes of age and desiccation that had befallen her strange mistress. She had been overheard in this statement, and so her livelihood now belonged to Panya, a situation which Panya found most advantageous, being in the care of foreign men in a foreign land. Mary did not, yet.
Panya ran her fingers over the impression of the printed script in the thick paper. The narrow shape named it a gentleman’s card, but of course, only gentlemen called on the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra. Langdon Everett Caul, it said.
Panya reached for her own ivory card case, but a slight frown appeared on Mary’s face. In those days, Panya still spoke with sharp traces of another tongue in her words and still thought in the language of Kemet, which the British called Egypt. Watching Mary carefully, who possessed an entire language of frowns, Panya said, “Please tell Mr. Caul that he is welcome to join us here -- and please bring another cup.”
Campbell dropped his biscuit.
Through a series of facial acrobatics, Mary conveyed that such a response would be acceptable, though hardly ideal. Campbell seemed overtaken by an obstacle of the throat which caused him to unsubtly contort himself to read the name on the card in Panya’s hand.
She flipped it neatly facedown on the table, and raised one eyebrow.
Campbell proved unable to restrain himself. “Caul? Is that Langdon Caul? I, forgive me, perhaps you are unfamiliar -- ”
“Mr. Campbell, you are here as my guest,” Panya said. The color of Mary’s knuckles on the silver tray flashed from peach to plaster, and Panya added, “I apologize, Mr. Campbell. I am still new to the language, and subtleties prove difficult. I meant to say only that I am very grateful that you could make yourself and your collection available to me.”
“Yes, of course,” Campbell said, pale. The message had not been any less sharply delivered for the hastily added cushioning.
Panya, whose role in Victorian society was a blurry union of foreign dignitary and medical curiosity, had accepted all manner of honors and responsibilities from the Brotherhood in their bid to secure her company. One of these was the care of the second of their three residences in London, a large Italianate mansion in the city’s west end owned by Lord Adam Glaren. Living in the ancient crossroads of Thebes, Panya had far more experience with dignitaries than with medical curiosities, and so she had accepted the responsibility with a natural, regal authority that had caused no end of speculation as to her birth.
As always, Panya professed an unfortunate amnesia.
Caul, when he arrived, proved to be a tall gentlemen of fair complexion and well-shaped features. He wore his curly hair long and his dress immaculate. His expression exhibited a secure confidence that bordered on smug. For someone who had left his calling card for the mistress of the house, he also looked surprised to see her.
“Madam,” he said, his self-assurance momentarily halted. He carried a neatly wrapped brown paper package, the size of a penny dreadful.
“Mr. Caul,” Panya said dryly, “I don’t believe we have met.”
“Forgive me, Miss Panya. I have the advantage -- your reputation as a scientific mind precedes you.”
This was of course a pleasant fabrication, as what preceded her was undoubtedly her reputation as the country’s only living three thousand year old woman. That he knew of her participation in the Brotherhood’s scientific interests was flattering however, and she allowed him to kiss her knuckle gallantly. He did this without any sign of revulsion, though the most expensive oils and creams from the continent could only do so much to reverse the visible effects of mummification. Panya marked him as an interesting man.
“Caul,” Campbell said stiffly. “Forgive me, it has been a long time – I didn’t know you were in London. The war didn’t cause you any difficulty in travel?”
“Campbell,” Caul said smoothly, and they shook hands quite politely.
“Of course, the American war,” Panya said. “The Brotherhood hears very little from its members across the sea. You yourself are not involved?”
Caul eyed her as someone recognizing a worthy opponent. “Madam, the truth is that I have little interest in politics, being involved in projects which consume the whole of my time. I can only say that through history, wars fought against one's countrymen have been the doom of nations and empires.” He tapped his fingers, tum-tum against the brown paper bundle, and smiled lightly. “But I have for some years been absent from Virginia, newly taken up in New England, where the weather is all together worse than London.”
“Well, I am glad that you have arrived safely. We have been searching for the lost world of Lemuria this morning. Will your join us for tea?”
“I myself have spent some time in that pursuit,” he said wryly.
“You will of course share your findings on the subject,” Panya said, “as with Mr. Campbell’s expertise and my own scientific mind, we are a veritable committee of philosphers.”
“I would be delighted,” he said and could not entirely conceal his amusement. Panya kept her face clean of any understanding, and she saw his brow lower minutely in interest.
Ah, another adventurer.