It was an impressive room; large and square with French doors that led onto a precisely trimmed English garden. The doors were secured against the chill, gray drizzle of an early spring rain. The other three walls of the study were lined not in books but with trophies; from one oak-paneled wall a head of an enormous stag stared glassily down, while a Bengal tiger snarled from another. Between the two hung an incredible array of lesser (although no less dead) creatures, all bagged by generations of Doyles on bold expeditions to various exotic corners of the Empire.
Behind the massive desk sat an equally massive man. Muscles threatened the seams of his fine coat and, although his hair was quite gray, he looked more than capable of strangling the aforementioned tiger with his bare hands.
The slight figure that stood timidly before the desk would have been sure of it -- except that Uncle Cedric so loved to shoot things. The smell of the powder, the roar of the explosion...
"Raymond, you are daydreaming again!" The voice boomed out, not unlike the discharge of one of his elephant guns.
The young man jumped, startled from his reverie. "Uh... no, sir. Not at all, sir."
Pale blue eyes narrowed suspiciously. "You haven't heard a word I've said, have you?"
"I--" the voice squeaked, and Raymond swallowed nervously, clearing his throat. "Of course I have, sir. You were explaining about Father's estate."
Cedric grunted, unappeased. Cedric Caesar Doyle was the younger brother of the recently deceased Lord Henry Hannibal Doyle, who had met an untimely demise under the feet of a somewhat ill-tempered rhinoceros.
"Being the executor of your father's will is a thankless task, my boy. No one feels his death more keenly than I, but we must face the unpleasant facts of life."
Raymond, who had been only slightly more intimidated by his father than he was by his uncle, simply nodded and tried to look suitably mournful. His strongest memory of his sire was when, at age twelve, he had refused to shoot a deer and, in a fit of manly outrage at his son's squeamishness, his father had struck him in the face with the butt of his rifle. The lad came away from the experience with a broken cheekbone and a deep abhorrence of both his father and the inestimable skill of blasting defenseless animals. Privately, he had only the best of wishes toward a certain rhino.
The title, of course," Cedric continued, "will go to your oldest brother, Manfred. Alfred is already firmly established in what promises to be a brilliant political career, and his mother settled a handsome inheritance with him at her death. Harold has announced his intentions of taking over the management of the various family holdings and business ventures; an occupation for which he is well suited."
Raymond could easily agree with that assessment. Brother Harold had the compassion of a shark in feeding frenzy and his fingers were permanently stained from counting bank notes.
"Percy and Randolph have both expressed interest in taking commissions in Her Majesty's service," his uncle continued. "Nigel, as you know, is already serving in India." He regarded the youngest Doyle son with distaste. "That, however, leaves you."
His gaze raked the unprepossessing figure from the unruly reddish-brown curls to the neatly shod feet. There was nothing of the Doyles in this slight, mousey boy. He was entirely the product of his mother, from the odd, Celtic slant of the too-green eyes and the elfin face, to the slender, sensitive hands. Cedric shrugged fatalistically. He had warned Henry not to marry that Irish chit, even if she was of decent family. She hadn't two coppers to rub together and she didn't have the stamina nor the fortitude to be a breeder of true Doyles. Henry's previous two wives had been of much sturdier stock (although somewhat accident prone -- one having broken her neck falling down stairs, the other flattened by a milk wagon on market day). But between them both they had borne him six stalwart sons.
At age fifty, however, Henry Doyle had been smitten by Elizabeth Carrey's fragile beauty and the fearless way she rode to hounds, throwing her heart over the fences. She was but seventeen when the middle-aged Lord Henry put a lucrative proposition to the girl's father in return for her hand in marriage. It was an offer the impoverished Irish peer couldn't refuse.
Cedric, however, had proven prophetically right about the young Lady Doyle. Almost nine months to the day after their wedding, she had died giving birth to Raymond Patrick Doyle. He had been a sickly child who had grown into a rather frail, bookish youth. Even now, at nearly age eighteen, Cedric doubted the boy would top eight and a half stone. For a Doyle, his puny size alone was shameful.
Shaking his bullish head, the man addressed himself to the problem at hand. "It is my responsibility to see you suitably established. This presents something of a dilemma as obviously you are not military material. In fact, you have demonstrated a deplorable lack of interest in sport of any kind. Nor do you have the disposition for the clergy, thank god." He seemed oblivious to any irony in the statement.
Raymond, however, bit his lip to stifle a nervous giggle.
"A political career is also out of the question," Cedric plowed on, finding a certain satisfaction in enumerating his nephew's deficiencies. "Lord knows, you barely have nerve to reprimand a servant, let alone give speeches in the House." He shrugged his broad shoulders. "I must confess, young man, I have been in something of a quandary as to where you fit in at all." He picked up the letter opener (which had once been a ceremonial dagger Cousin Bartholemew Brutus Doyle had liberated from a Swahili chieftain) and began paring his nails.
Steeling himself, Raymond ventured, "Sir, what I really want is--"
"After long consideration, however," his uncle blasted on, ignoring the humble interjection, "I have fastened upon the perfect situation. Diplomatic service! Splendid idea, you must agree."
The green eyes widened. "Sir?"
"I don't mind telling you, it took some doing. But I finally convinced an old chum of mine to take you on."
"Take me on...?"
"Yes, indeed. He tells me he could do with ah...what do they call it? Attach or some such rot. A glorified secretary is what it is." He offered another scan of the slightly-built youth and frowned at the gold-rimmed spectacles the lad wore. "You certainly look the part. With those infernal eye glasses of yours, anyone would take you for a clerk."
Raymond flushed slightly, but years of merciless teasing from his older brothers had made him nearly immune to that particular ridicule. "Precisely what do you mean by `diplomatic service', Uncle?" he forced himself to ask.
"Sir Melvin Hacksley -- he's the friend I was telling you about -- tremendous horseman, fabulous shot...can pick the eye out of a grouse at thirty yards, can old Hacksley. Sir Melvin was appointed to one of the foreign offices -- Arabia or some such heathen place. In my last correspondence with him, he was good enough to accept your service. There is a boat departing in two days. You can take the London coach in the morning so you will have plenty of time to catch it."
Raymond stood frozen, breath lodged in his throat. He couldn't speak, couldn't move, all he could do was stare in horror at the man who could casually send him so far from home without so much as consulting him. It wasn't that he was disappointed in his uncle; having minimal expectations of any of his family had somewhat prepared him for a certain lack of consideration. But he was still appalled at such utter callousness.
Cedric glanced up from trimming his nails. "Well, that's all, boy. You had best begin packing. You'll need to make an early start of it tomorrow if you're to reach town by nightfall."
"But...I don't want to go."
Cedric blinked. "Eh? What's that?"
Raymond cleared his throat and said louder. "I don't want to go, sir."
"Poppycock!" Cedric snorted. "It'll be a great adventure for you, boy! About time you got your nose out of a damned book and saw something of the world."
While Raymond agreed in principle, what he had in mind was more in the way of a civilized tour of the Continent, not being tossed to the natives in some barbaric province. While naive, he wasn't stupid, and he realized the true intention behind this plan -- to bury him in some godforsaken place, out of sight and out of mind. Timid, he might well be, but he had other plans for his life.
Screwing up his courage, the young man squared his shoulders and faced his uncle. "I want to go to Cambridge, sir."
"University!" From the man's reaction, he might as well have said he had a yen to be a bank robber or even go on the stage. "You want to attend one of those blue-nosed universities?" Cedric was disgusted at the very idea. "And what was wrong with the education you received here at home, pray tell? It's been bloody good enough for every other Doyle. You've had nannies and tutors coming out your bloody ears! No, it's out of the question. I'll have you know that no Doyle has ever needed an education to make his way in the world!"
Raymond opened his mouth to reply, but shut it again as his uncle roared on.
"Furthermore, I know very well what those institutions are about. They're a breeding ground for discontent, that's what. Full of middle-class upstarts dissatisfied with the natural order of things. Filling lads' heads with rubbish about social equality and turning them into so-called `free thinkers'. A pack of nonsense. I won't have it, do you hear?" Rising to his feet, he pounded his meaty fist on the desk.
Despite himself, Raymond shrank back a little.
"I'll wager it was that fancy French tutor of yours that put all this rot in your head, wasn't it? I should horsewhip the bastard!"
"No, sir. It wasn't Phillipe's idea, honestly," the young man put in quickly. His chin lifted, fighting back his natural fear of his uncle. "If I can't go to University... then let me go to Paris to study. Just for a year. That's all I ask."
"Study? Study what?"
Taking a deep breath, Raymond said, "Art, sir. I should like to be an artist."
It was his uncle's turn to be struck breathless. "You must be raving mad."
"No, sir. I'm really rather good at it. I'll show you." Eagerly he went to the gun case and slid his portfolio from its hiding place behind it, having anticipated this session with his uncle and wanting to be prepared to back up his ambitions. This was his chance to prove himself and he had to make the best of it, even if his knees were shaking and his heart pounding like a wild thing. Hesitantly, he handed it to his uncle, certain one perusal of the contents would, at the very least, make him reconsider his hasty decision.
"Sketches are for prissy young misses to keep them busy until they catch a husband, not for the son of Henry Doyle. There has never been a poet or...artist," he spat out the word like a bad taste, "in the Doyle family and there certainly shan't be while I have a say in the matter! Bah!"
Without even opening it, he tore the portfolio in two and then shred it again for good measure before tossing it to the floor.
The artist cried out as if it were himself being ripped asunder. For a long moment there was silence except for the lash of rain against the glass and the rustle of loose paper caught in the draught from under the door.
Then green eyes lifted, blazing with hate. "Damn you. Damn you to hell!"
"Be that as it may," Cedric said, unperturbed. "We will hear no more of this nonsense, is that clear? You will go to Sir Melvin and follow his instructions to the letter. I will not have you bringing disgrace on this family with such pooftish airs. Artist, indeed!"
Tears burned the young man's eyes as he knelt to gather up the scraps of paper. Two years' work; years of dreams. These had been his best, his proudest efforts. This wasn't necessary, he thought bitterly. It was stupid and cruel. But that's all he is -- what they all are. My father, my brothers...all of them. My god, how could I have been born to this family? Why was I born at all?
"Did you hear what I said, boy?"
"I heard," Raymond replied grimly without looking up. "I'm not going."
"You think not, eh? I'm afraid you have no say in the matter, you insolent puppy. Until you come of age, you are in my control. And for your information, I have formally released my guardianship to Sir Melvin while you are in his service."
The young man stood, clutching his ruined drawings in his hands. "And I tell you, I'm not going."
The uncle towered over the slight figure, glowering down at him. "You've chosen the wrong moment to show some backbone. You impudent rascal, I ought to knock you across this room."
Raymond didn't flinch as his uncle approached him threateningly. "Go ahead. It wouldn't be the first time, would it?"
Cedric stopped. "So it thinks it's a man now, does it? Very well, if that's how you want it. You be out of this house before morning, and never expect another farthing from myself or anyone else in this family. We'll see how long you last, eh?"
For a splendid moment, his nephew's eyes blazed, defiant with enough fire to put even the brutish Doyles to shame. "I don't care. I've been bullied long enough. I don't need any of you!"
Cedric laughed and the sound of it deflated the boy as nothing else could have done. More shouting would have hardened his resolve; a blow or slap at this torch point might even have goaded him to fight back. But the derisive laughter dampened his newly awakened spirit as effectively as a bucket of water dousing a match.
"It's a hard world, boy. Without the cushion of money and position, you wouldn't last a week. Any of your brothers might manage it, but not you. Look at yourself! Make your own way in the world? Ha! You could barely make your way to the next village before you got a blister on your heel and came limping back to Nurse."
The words pummeled his defenseless ears, and the boy felt sick. His uncle was right. He knew nothing of the world; had hardly been off the estate in his short life. His impulsive defiance led to the unknown for he had no real knowledge of what awaited him beyond the covers of the books he had read.
"So what will it be then?" Cedric prodded ruthlessly. "Make up your mind now, but don't expect to come crawling back when you discover you've chosen wrong. You can starve for all I care."
Still, the youth remained silent, the fear insidiously seeping in, stealing away his courage. He had found the fortitude to face his uncle, but the terror of the unknown was a barrier he hadn't anticipated. The truth shamed him as his uncle had never been able to. He was a coward. His vivid imagination betrayed him and the specters were too frightening to blithely accept.
"Well?" his uncle demanded coldly. "What's it to be?"
Raymond's head drooped and his shoulders slumped in defeat. "Just as you say, Uncle. Whatever you think best."
Slightly mollified by the sudden capitulation, Cedric grunted. "Now you're being sensible. Artist, indeed! Sometimes I wonder how you could possibly be Henry's son."
A flicker of the crushed spirit flared for an instant as the boy looked up. "I wish to god I wasn't."
In a land far away, the fading rays of sunset touched the tent of Sheik Adu Bodie al Nassar bin Jafarr. A few of the more pious were still at prayers and their sing-song chants drifted across the sands and presumably to the ears of Allah.
"It is not proper, Son of my Brother. When will I make you see reason?"
Standing at the open tent flap, the young man let the words pass over him with as much notice as the moon pays a fleeting cloud.
Sighing, the older man sat back on the cushion shaking his head wearily. He watched the Sheik taking in the beauty of the sun melting into the mountains, sensing the young man's mind was far removed from that as well. Abd Hassid al Abdul bin Jafarr had served and advised his nephew since the death of his brother, nearly five years earlier, when the sixteen-year-old boy had taken his father's place as sheik and leader of the Jafarr.
In many ways, Hassid admired the young Sheik. As a leader he was strong, but compassionate. The people loved him without question -- perhaps even more than they had his sire. As a warrior, Adu Bodie was unequaled. Ruthless in battle, fearless and skilled beyond his years, he had brought the tribe of Jafarr back from the ignominy of defeat in the war that killed his father to dominance of the entire region.
Hassid observed his nephew silently as the scarlet and gold fingers of the sun slipped behind the mountains. Bodie had been a comely lad who had grown, both in muscle and hardness, into a splendidly handsome man. But his skin was far too white for a Bedouin and his eyes were a startling azure blue that contrasted with the luxurious length of black lashes and the jet of his hair. The eyes and pale skin were unwelcome reminders of his nephew's English mother, kidnapped by the previous sheik and made first wife. Considering it a folly of his brother's youth, Hassid had despised the woman from his first sight of her. Beautiful she may have been, but unwomanly to his strict Muslim eye. She had refused to wear a veil and had ridden horses and smoked like a man, with little thought of her place as an inferior creature in the sight of Allah.
"Is Gasim on watch again tonight, Hassid?"
Startled by the interruption of his thoughts, it took a second for Hassid to realize Adu Bodie had spoken.
"Gasim took watch last night," Bodie said patiently. "Why again tonight?"
"Oh. He is having trouble in his tent. His wives have been bickering so he requested the watch to escape their shrewish tongues."
Bodie smiled wryly. "I see. And still you insist I need a wife, Uncle?"
Cursing his clumsy tongue, Hassid said quickly, "He cannot control his women. A good beating would soon put them right, but he is too soft. You, however, would--"
"Would be much sterner, of course," Bodie cut in, "like my father." His amused expression vanished, his face cold. Turning from the door, he joined his uncle on the cushions. "I have heard your arguments for marriage, Uncle. My ears bleed from your talk. Enough."
"No. It is a disgrace, nephew. You are the sheik of the Jafarr and you have no sons. You are nearly twenty-one years yet you have taken no wife to continue our line. I have three wives, your father had four--"
"After my mother died," Bodie put in dangerously.
"We will not speak of the woman who bore you; we will only quarrel. But you must see that this...this stubbornness is not good for your people. Who will there be to follow you?"
Bodie rolled his eyes. "Let us see, you have..." he made a rapid calculation, "...ten sons--?"
"Eleven," Hassid corrected proudly. "Fatima bore me a son two moons ago."
"That's right. Eleven. Is that not a sufficient number to guarantee succession of the name?"
Hassid sighed. "It is not the same. You are first son of first son of the tents of Jafarr. I am second son and I serve you as my sons will serve your sons. It is written that--"
Bodie held up his hand to forestall the endless quotation. "I am well aware of what is written, my Uncle. Spare me."
"You need a wife," Hassid repeated obstinately.
"I need peace," Bodie replied flatly.
Frustrated, Hassid snapped, "What is it? You do not like women?"
Bodie regarded him with amusement.
"Very well," Hassid conceded. "I know of your prowess in the towns. The way you go through women like a goat devours new grass. But those are harlots, women of the street. You need a chaste woman of good family. My daughter, Sarika, for example--"
"I have not even seen her face since she was ten, Uncle."
"I should hope not!" his uncle retorted, outraged at the very thought. "She is a virtuous girl. No man but myself and her brothers have set eyes upon her face! I swear it by almighty and all-seeing Allah!"
"I meant no offense, Uncle. I believe you. But I also do not wish to wed someone I have never seen."
"Do our customs mean nothing to you? Satan's teeth! That is the influence of that thrice-cursed English tutor of yours! I warned my brother--"
"Cambridge has nothing to do with it. I simply do not wish to marry yet, my Uncle. Trust me, when I decide it is necessary, Sarika will be high in my consideration."
Hassid clapped his hands in delight. "Ah, so it is in your thoughts. Praise be to Allah! You make me so happy, my most worthy of nephews!" He leaned over and clasped Bodie's face, kissing him soundly on both cheeks. "Now I can die content."
Bodie was less than impressed. "I am your only nephew. And do not slaughter the goats for the wedding feast just yet, Uncle. I said when the time comes, not that it has arrived. In any case, you are not yet forty. It is a somewhat young age to talk of dying -- contented or not."
Hassid waved a dismissive hand. "It is enough to know the thought of marriage and duty to your tribe is in your heart, beloved nephew." He leaned forward conspiratorially, "Just between the two of us, my Sarika is exquisite. She will be fourteen at the next moon." He kissed the tips of his fingers. "Eyes like a doe, skin like satin, a mouth fresh and sweet as a pomegranate--"
"I am convinced she is without equal," Bodie cut in hastily. "At present, however, I have other matters on my mind."
"What matters? We have sent Ali Fasik and his dog-loving followers back to the holes of their birth. What else troubles you?"
Bodie chose a fig from the dish and chewed it thoughtfully. "The English will come soon, I think, to make a new treaty. Their agreement was with Fasik and his word is dust now."
"That is months in the future. Perhaps years. They care as little for us as we for them. Let them have their seaports. What care Bedouin for those?"
"My father believed it important to have ties with the British," Bodie pointed out. "And who do we sell our horses to, yes? The world is large, Hassid, and it is not all desert."
"And the world is not all the English. The French also would court our allegiance."
"True. But the British are stronger."
"Yes, and look how quickly the English turned on your honored father when that Fasik dog attacked? They made bonds with his enemies before your father's blood was dry on the sand."
The younger man's expression was black. "I have not forgotten."
"He trusted the blue-eyes..." Hassid trailed off, realizing his error. "He trusted the English and they turned on him like jackals. You cannot make the same mistake--"
"Enough," Bodie snarled. "I will make my own decisions, Uncle." He held the older man's gaze. "About everything."
Wanting to say more, Hassid wisely held his tongue. He knew his nephew could be pushed only so far before his patience snapped. In some ways he was more unbending than his father.
Adu Bodie was not a man that even a loving uncle chose to cross lightly.
Lost in his own thoughts, Bodie murmured, "The English have much to prove."
Raymond Doyle stood before Sir Melvin's desk in much the same position he had stood before his uncle's several weeks and thousands of miserably seasick miles ago. As a matter of fact, the man behind the desk wasn't all that much different in either looks or temperament from Cedric Doyle.
Raymond, however, felt even more poor-spirited and ineffectual than he had in Cedric's study.
Stepping off the ship onto a strange land, blissfully grateful to feel solid ground under his feet, it had taken about three minutes to find himself stripped of both his pocketwatch and his purse. He had retained his valise only by sheer determination and a hasty retreat from the docks. It had seemed to take forever to locate the British Embassy. No one had been sent to greet him and he knew no Arabic. The natives just eyed him speculatively when he asked the direction and jabbered away in an incomprehensible tongue. Unaccustomed to the oppressive heat, he found it difficult to breathe in his stiff collar and his curls were soon plastered to his forehead and sticking lankily against his neck. Once he managed to locate the British Compound, he nearly lost his bag again when he paused to give a few stray coppers to some scrawny children at the gate.
His introduction to Arabia had been less than congenial, and his present mood was fatalistic to say the least.
"So you're Cedric's nephew, are you?"
Raymond gritted his teeth. Even as a rhetorical question it was unbearably idiotic under the circumstances. He had already told the man his name. How many bloody Doyles was he expecting? Still, he managed a civil nod.
The man looked him over critically. "Well, I must say you're not at all what I expected. Henry Doyle's son, you say?"
Even as exhausted and dispirited as he was, the open disappointment in Sir Melvin's attitude had the power to hurt.
Expressionless, he replied, "Yes, sir."
Sir Melvin shook his head. "Cedric did write that you were a bit of different bird than the rest of the family, but I didn't imagine..." he trailed off, making it abundantly clear that the reality was even less acceptable than he had hoped. "Well, never mind. You're here now. I suppose we'll have to make the best of it. Have you any experience in diplomatic affairs?"
Sir Melvin frowned. "I understood your brother is in the House?"
"He is. I haven't spoken with him in three years."
"I see. Never mind, you do have a brother in finance, so the bookkeeping matters--"
"I haven't seen Harold in two years."
Sir Melvin blinked. "Oh. Very well." He studied the papers on his desk. "Ah...I see your brother in India is familiar with trade agreements and--"
"I was ten when he was last in England, sir."
The man looked so totally nonplussed that despite his depression, young Doyle felt a bubble of amusement.
"Well, what can you do, boy?"
"Eh? What do you mean, nothing?"
Doyle took a deep breath, too utterly weary and discouraged to care about anything at this point. "I believe I was candid enough about my talents. I can, however, give you a further definition of nothing if you wish. Nothing -- a person or thing of no consequence. Absence of anything perceptible. Nonexistence. Zero. Insignificance. Obscurity. Without discernable value..."
"Are you trying to be impudent, young man?"
"Yes, but I'm probably failing at that, too."
Sir Melvin's face reddened to an amazing shade of puce. Raymond wondered idly if he suffered from hypertension.
"You'll learn to keep a civil tongue in your head when you talk to me, you arrogant little pup!"
"I was only answering your question, sir. You asked what I could do, and I told you. I have no skills, no training, and no great ambitions to become a civil servant. The most I can offer is honesty."
"Then why the devil are you here?!"
"I have no idea. You must ask my Uncle Cedric next time you join him on a hunt. I'm told you're lethal to fowl."
Lost for a reply, Sir Melvin merely harrumphed and busied himself filling his pipe, eyeing the boy uncertainly. He was saved from deciding on a response by a light tap on the door.
"Come in," he bellowed."
A head peered around the door. "You sent for me, sir?"
"Ah, yes, Hart." Sir Melvin greeted him with something akin to relief. "Come in, man. Don't stand with your long neck stuck through the doorway like a bloody ostrich. Doyle, this is my secretary, Zachery Hart. Hart, this is Mr. Doyle. I've decided he will be in your charge and work with you on .... whatever," he finished vaguely.
"Of course, sir. How do you do, Mr. Doyle? Welcome to Aden and to Arabia."
Raymond took the outstretched hand, a little startled at both the open friendliness and the man who offered it. If Doyle thought himself too thin, Hart was positively emaciated. Somewhere in his late twenties, Hart was half a foot taller than Doyle and gawky and angular, all elbows and adam's apple. But he had kind brown eyes and his handshake was warm and genuine.
"Find him something to keep him occupied," Sir Melvin directed peevishly. "I don't bloody care what, as long as you keep him out of my way -- the insolent rascal. And you, Doyle, better learn to mind your manners, or I shall be forced to inform your uncle of your behavior." He dismissed them both with an imperious wave and returned to lighting his pipe.
Doyle picked up his valise and followed the secretary out of the room and down a long corridor to the tiny cubbyhole that was obviously Hart's office. It had a small shuttered window and a desk crammed in among an assortment of filing cabinets and shelves stuffed with rolled maps and charts. Doyle's heart sank, realizing what a horrible imposition he would be in this tiny space.
"We'll have to fit another desk in here somehow, won't we?" Hart said cheerfully, seeming not at all put out by the idea. "Here, lad, make yourself comfortable. You look all done in." He pushed out his own chair for Doyle to take and perched on the edge of the over-laden desk.
"I do hope that pompous old jackass didn't give you too hard a time of it. He likes to pretend he knows what goes on around here, but mostly he spends his time in the Club, sucking on his nasty pipe and expounding on the superiority of the British Way."
Uncertain how to respond to the companionable flow of words, Raymond kept silent.
Under the cover of his easy chatter, Hart observed the young man very carefully, noting the too-pale skin, the dark circles under his eyes, the way he sat hunched in the chair nervously clutching the arms as if expecting to be barked at any moment. He guessed the boy was sixteen or seventeen, and would be a very nice looking lad if he had any color in his face and would meet another's eyes for more than a second. He reminded Hart of a rabbit accidentally released from a hutch, trembling and terrified of the new world it was unexpectedly thrust into.
"Hullo? Are you listening?"
Doyle started a bit and looked up, eyes wide. "I'm sorry. What did you say?"
"I asked what you said to his Nibs to turn him up so. Thought he was on the verge of apoplexy when I popped in."
Raymond looked at the floor. "I don't know. I shouldn't have said anything, I suppose. It just made him angry."
"Nonsense. It's good for him to have his long nose out of joint occasionally. Maybe we'll get lucky and the old bastard will burst a blood vessel or something, eh?"
The green eyes lifted, startled.
"Well, never mind him. What say we have a spot of tea? It's a tad early but you look as if you could use something."
Having had nothing since the breakfast he couldn't keep down on the boat, not to mention the many other meals he had upchucked, Doyle couldn't help but look eager at the prospect. "Yes, please."
Hart rang a little silver bell on his desk and an Arab boy appeared like a genie popping up from thin air.
"This is Ali. He's a great friend of mine. Ali, this is Mr. Doyle. He'll be working with us."
The boy bowed slightly to Doyle, touching his fingers to his heart then to his forehead in a gesture that Ray found more graceful than humble. "Ahlan wasahlan," he offered formally.
Uncertain if he was supposed to return the motion, Raymond bowed his head in return and smiled hesitantly. "I'm sorry, I don't understand your language, but I'm very happy to meet you."
"He says you are so welcome here," Hart translated, pleased and a little surprised at the young man's willingness to treat a servant as a person. He discovered his ready sympathy for the lad already veering toward affection. "Ali, would you be so kind as to bring the tea tray early today?"
After the boy scurried out, Hart commented, "He's a very clever fellow. A great help to me, actually. And his English is quite good. He considered it more of an honor to welcome you in his own language, you see." He looked at Doyle again. "You really do look a bit rough, old son. Are you sure you're all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine. Thank you. Just tired. It's been...a difficult day."
"I can imagine. Never been away from home before, have you?"
Doyle flushed. "That obvious, is it?"
"Yes, but it's not a crime, y'know. Everyone has a first time away. Seasick, were you?"
An embarrassed nod.
"And they robbed you blind at the pier, did they?"
Doyle started to nod again, then looked up, surprised. "How did you know?"
Hart laughed. "Because it happened to me, too, old chap. Those little buggers are experts. You're lucky you came through with your underpants. They see a white face, they know they have an easy mark. Happens to everyone sooner or later."
Raymond relaxed a little, relieved to know that maybe everything wasn't due to his own incompetence after all.
The boy brought the tray, bowed, and disappeared again.
After a cup and a few biscuits, Doyle felt a little better. Bold enough to look around more openly. "Exactly what do you do here, Mr. Hart?"
"Call me Zachery or Zack, please. Working in such close quarters, we'd best become friends straight off, don't you think?"
Friends? Doyle picked up on the word with a tiny lurch of his heart. He'd never had a friend before. Not a real one anyway. Phillipe, his tutor, had been the closest he had ever come to having a friend he could really talk to, and even Phillipe had returned to France with hardly a backward glance.
Friend had become an significant word to Raymond Doyle and not something lightly given or accepted. He studied the other man out of the corner of his eye.
"I'm Raymond," he finally offered timidly.
"Well, Raymond, when they told me who was coming, I was expecting someone quite different--" He broke off as he noticed the stricken look on the boy's face and the way his eyes ducked back to the floor as if ashamed.
"Yes, I know," Doyle said quietly. "I'm not much like the rest of my family."
Reading the despondent form and flushed face, the older man suddenly got an amazingly clear picture of the volumes of despair that lay behind those softly spoken words.
Inexplicably angry, Zachery said heartily, "Well, thank heavens for that! We shouldn't have got on at all if you were!"
The green eyes darted up shyly. He was accustomed to being compared unfavorably with his brothers. This was the first time anyone had seemed pleased that he didn't measure up to the Doyle standard.
Sensing the confusion, Zachery grinned. "I had nightmare visions of some beefy, frightfully sporting young despot barging in and either bullying me or boring me to tears. Thank goodness you look like a fellow with something in your head besides air and more conversation than the cricket matches."
A dimple sprang up in Doyle's cheek and his smile was a little less hesitant. "I'm dreadful at cricket."
"There we go! I knew we had common ground. Now finish up your tea and I'll show you around a bit if you'd like. Believe it or not, our rooms are much more spacious than this. Quite nice, in fact. Of course, that's only because they ran out of closet space after assigning this office..."
Ali returned to take the tray and Doyle impulsively offered him the remaining biscuits. The dusky face blanched and he shook his head violently, plainly horrified.
Dismayed, Doyle turned to Zachery. "What did I say?"
Patting the Arab boy's shoulder, Zachery said soothingly, "He meant no insult, Ali. He doesn't understand. We'll soon set him straight."
Ali nodded and tossed Doyle a forgiving smile before bowing out of the room as silently as he had entered.
"I didn't mean to offend him," Doyle said shakily. "What did I do?"
"This is the first week of the fast of Ramadan, you see." Hart explained. "It is to commemorate Muhammad's receipt of God's revelation, the Koran -- that's the equivalent of our Bible. For one month devout Muslims neither drink nor eat nor smoke from sunrise to sunset. At the end of the month there is a great three-day festival, the Eid al Fitr."
Raymond let out his breath. "It seems I have a lot to learn."
Zachery regarded him soberly. "Most of the British here don't bother. Are you truly interested in learning something of the culture?"
Doyle considered it. "I hadn't thought about it really, but I certainly don't want to offend Ali or anyone else. If I'm to live in this country, it seems only right that I know as much about it as I can. Otherwise, I might as well be back in Sussex."
The older man grinned broadly. "I was hoping you would feel that way. Myself, I've been fascinated for years with the Arabic literature and culture. It's rich and beautiful and ...but I'm already starting to lecture, aren't I? Forgive me."
"No, please, I'm interested," Doyle encouraged. "Will you teach me?"
"With pleasure. But I'm afraid Ali would be a much better teacher than me. I'm just beginning to catch on myself."
Puzzled, Doyle said, "But I thought you had been here a long time!"
"Goodness, no. Only a couple of months. It took me nearly three years to arrange an assignment to this station."
"You wanted to come here?" Doyle asked in amazement.
"Of course! I've been studying Arabic since I was eighteen, reading everything I could get my hands on." He blushed a little. "Actually, my dream is to write a book on the history and culture." He moved to the windows and opened the shutters. The afternoon sunlight poured into the dim room, bright and blinding in intensity, hot and hard and brilliant as diamond. "There is a mystery...a sense of romance about Arabia. It's perhaps the same feeling other people have for the sea. The quiet power and endless space. Don't you feel it?" Without waiting for or expecting an answer, he closed the shutters to block the scorching sun. "I suppose it is like the sea in a way -- a trackless ocean of sand with an occasional oasis as its islands."
"Yes, I see," Doyle murmured, not sure he did see. Not yet. Not as Zachery did certainly. So far his experience of this country had been something less than pleasant, but if Zachery was so taken, there must be more to it.
All Raymond Doyle knew of the world was confined to the pages of books. It was a concept that had frightened him before. Now he had the opportunity to discover more and he was surprised at his eagerness to touch the reality. It was no less intimidating, but it was intriguing as well. None of his daydreams of life had included Arabia, but he was here and it seemed an excellent place to start.
"If it won't bore you to help a beginner, I would like to learn," Doyle offered shyly.
Zachery beamed at him, pleased at his interest and sensing it was more than politeness. He had liked Doyle instinctively and now he was certain his instincts were right.
"Come on, old son, I'll show you around the compound a bit. Get you settled in. This should be rather jolly, having someone to natter on to. There's only one condition."
"Yes?" Doyle asked warily.
"If I start to bore you silly, you mustn't be bashful about telling me."
Doyle's worry cleared like magic. "Agreed."
The white stallion thundered across the sand, releasing the pent up tensions in both horse and rider. Black robes flowing in the bright wash of moonlight, Bodie leaned closer to the Arabian's outstretched neck and encouraged the flight with soft snatches of Arabic, whispered love words that drove the animal to greater efforts. None were necessary. The animal would have burst his heart for this man, if he had asked it of him.
But soon the young Sheik called him back from the heaven of sheer, unchecked speed; tugging on the whipping mane, gentling the racing stallion with his hands and the subtle pressure of his knees.
"Enough Shaizar, easy now...be easy, my brother."
The horse reluctantly slowed, tossing his head to show his irritation, wanting more even though his sides were slick with sweat and his breathing labored.
Bodie caressed the stallion's arched neck. "Yes, I know...I know. It's never enough is it, dear friend? To run and run until your legs tremble, until your eyes burn red, and still you need more. Somehow you hope to catch a freedom you have never known... So do I, my Shaizar." He sighed. "So do I."
He looked up at the bright spray of stars, paled by the cold glow of the moon. The sand stretched in an endless sea of silver before them and he wondered what his faithful friend always ran so hard to find. Freedom was too obvious an answer -- for both of them. For the animal the answer was probably quite simple, the horse ran for the elemental joy of running. Reveling in his own speed and power.
For himself the answer was not so easy. What did he run from? Or to?
It was a question he had never been able to resolve, but it haunted him -- and it drove him out into the desert again and again to seek enlightenment.
As he surveyed the expanse of sky and sand, he felt a wave of loneliness so intense he bent his head and buried his face in the tangled mane, unable to cope with the bitter emptiness in his soul.
No matter how fast or far Shaizar ran, Bodie could never escape the aloneness; it clung to him, was part of him like the air he breathed -- like his too white skin and his accurst blue eyes.
Doyle removed his spectacles and rubbed his weary eyes. He had been checking off figures for hours, going over the bill of lading for a French ship that had docked the day before. Part of their job was to assess import tax on foreign goods coming into Aden, which, of course, would be compared and tallied with what the Arabian office figured. Since they seldom matched, it was important that the British figures be correct. It was incredibly tedious work and it was easy to let his thoughts wander.
It was late afternoon and a melancholy horn sounded in the distance. Trumpeted from the mosque not far outside the British compound, it called the faithful to prayers. The bustle in the streets quieted for a time and then the low murmur of thousands of voices chanting bits of the Koran wafted through the open window. The sun was low enough for the shutters to be fastened back in the vain hope of a stray breath of air. The concert of voices calling to Allah had a strangely soothing effect. In the two weeks Doyle had been in Aden, he had subconsciously learned to mark off the day by the five times of Muslim prayer -- dawn, noon, late afternoon, sunset and late evening. The cycle was more dependable than any clock.
Idly he began doodling on a spare bit of paper, sketching the spire of the mosque and the surrounding rooftops that could be seen over the wall of the compound. He tried to catch the hard glare of the sun on the white adobe, the way the shadows were black and sharp in the bright angle of the late afternoon light....
"Eh, that's rather nice, old chap."
As Zachery leaned over his shoulder to take a closer look, Raymond quickly crumpled up the page and pitched it into the trash bin.
Zachery straightened. "Why'd you do that?"
Doyle shrugged. "I should get back to work. There are still three more lists to--"
"You've been at it for hours. I'm not a slave driver, y'know."
The younger man smiled. "That's certainly true. If it was up to you I could daydream half the day."
Zachery airily waved one bony hand. "In the Arabic world, one learns not to hurry. Time is a thing to be savored, never conquered."
"And what would Sir Melvin say about that?"
"Sir Melvin would poke his monocle in his eye, chomp on his pipestem and say that is why the British rule the world instead of the `wogs', as he so charmingly calls them. Sir Melvin does not know, nor does he care, that the `wogs' ancestors built great civilizations while we in Britain were still busy painting ourselves blue."
Doyle laughed. Zachery could always make him laugh. It was a marvelous feeling, laughter. More than once during the last few days, it had occurred to him that despite the boredom of the work, despite the heat and minor discomforts of adapting to a new climate and new lifestyle, he was happier and more relaxed than he had been in memory. Zachery was comfortable to be around, easy-going to the point of limpness. He never got angry, never ordered the younger man around or made him feel inadequate or stupid when he made a mistake -- which was quite often in the beginning.
"Don't try to change the subject," Zachery said with mock sternness. He plucked the ball of paper out of the waste bin and smoothed it out. "This is good, you know. Why did you throw it away?"
The younger man squirmed uneasily. "It's silly. Pointless." He tried to snatch the paper back, but Zachery backed out of reach and studied the sketch silently.
Finally he laid it down on the desk in front of Doyle. "And who told you it was pointless, I wonder? Someone very like Sir Melvin, I'll wager."
Looking down at his creased sketch, Doyle muttered agreement, "Yes, very like."
Doyle hadn't touched a pen or brush to draw for weeks -- not since his uncle had heartlessly destroyed what he had so timidly presented. He had thought he had bricked up that part of himself, closed it off as he had so many things he felt. What was the point in trying at all when whatever you had to offer would be ripped up and thrown in your face as rubbish?
But now, staring down at what he had done without thinking, he noticed with surprise that his style had altered just a bit -- the lines stronger, the contrast between light and dark bolder and better defined than anything he had produced before.
Something in the young man's expression compelled Zachery to put a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Don't throw away your dreams, Ray."
When Doyle didn't respond, Zachery gave the shoulder a quick squeeze and returned to his own desk, seething inside at whoever had trampled the boy's spirit so thoroughly.
Raymond had improved tremendously over the last two weeks, opening up a little and showing occasional flashes of humor and a sharp wit. But he was still painfully shy and the wrong word could send him curling back into his shell. Yet, there was something in the cat-green eyes that made Zachery think of a slumbering volcano. There was so much anger and passion buried beneath that meek exterior, he imagined the boy's true temperament had been stifled for so long he wasn't even fully aware of it himself. When it finally did surface, Zachery suspected Doyle might be the most surprised of all.
As Zachery continued his own work, he watched Doyle out of the corner of his eye, pleased when Ray smoothed out the crinkles in the drawing and tucked it carefully into a drawer.
They both returned to their ledgers, and for a time the only sound was the scratching of pens and the final sounds of the prayers until they, too, faded to a drowsy quiet.
"What is the meaning of this!"
The sudden roar in the sleepy peace startled them both. Sir Melvin stood at the door, monocle firmly in place, glaring hard at Doyle, a sheaf of papers clutched in his hand.
Doyle sat frozen. "S-sir?"
Sir Melvin dropped the papers on the desk. "These were supposed to be delivered to Sidney Carstares yesterday morning. Not ten minutes ago I received a note from him informing me that his ship has still not been cleared. I told you to deliver this to the portmaster, Doyle!"
Nervously, Doyle skimmed through the scattered papers. "Uh.... sir, there was a problem with.... That is, he had some contraband items on board, sir. They aren't on the prescribed listing--"
"I don't give a damn about the listing, you insipid idiot! Carstares is a friend of mine, and what he has on his ship is his business! Now I want those release papers delivered immediately!"
Doyle stared down at the sheets, his demeanor altering as he remembered why he had held up the ship. The green eyes lifted to Sir Melvin's. "With all due respect, sir, I believe this is our business. One of the contraband items happened to be a rather large packet of opium, sir."
Sir Melvin blinked, then took out his pipe and clamped his teeth on the stem with decisive force. "What of it?"
Doyle stared back. "You're suggesting that we should release that?"
"I'm suggesting nothing -- I'm telling you!" He continued chewing on his pipestem, looking as if he'd like nothing better than to swat Doyle like an annoying gnat. "It is obviously for medicinal purposes."
"There's no requisition order to back it up," Doyle replied without wavering. "I won't release the ship with the drug on board without proper documentation."
For a second Sir Melvin was flabbergasted.
Zachery glanced at Doyle, almost as surprised as the old man. Doyle looked deadly serious and determined to stand his ground.
"Damn it all! Who the bloody hell do you think you are?" Sir Melvin blustered. "I'm sure this is all perfectly legal--"
"I'm doing my job," Doyle cut in coldly. "And that opium is not legal as it stands now."
Zachery chewed his lip worriedly. While he was gratified to see Ray standing his ground for once, it wouldn't do if his first attempt resulted in being squashed under the weight of Sir Melvin's heavier authority.
"Just a moment, sir," Zachery interjected, deciding this had progressed too far. Sir Melvin looked on the verge of a stroke and Doyle's eyes were snapping green fire. "I'm afraid this is all my fault. I should have taken care of it."
Sir Melvin turned his wrath on Hart. "You! I might have known! I want this mess cleared up immediately, do you hear? Carstares is wondering what kind of show I run here. I won't have this slip-shod behavior from my clerical staff. You can be replaced very easily, Hart. Another foul up and you'll find yourself back in London -- without references."
"Yes, sir. I understand. I received the release form earlier and forgot to let Mr. Doyle know. He was only going by the book, sir. Very commendable, you must agree."
Sir Melvin grunted, but the magic term `by the book' seemed to calm him down. "Very well. But I want no more of these mixups."
"We'll take care of it, sir," Hart assured him.
Sir Melvin turned back to Doyle, still bristling. "I want you to take this clearance down to the dock personally, do you hear? No wog messenger -- you."
Doyle stared back silently, and for one horrible second Zachery thought Doyle was going to spit in the old man's face, so angry did he seem.
"We'll see to it," Zachery repeated, hurrying Sir Melvin out the door and down the corridor. "Tell me, sir, is your gout improved....?"
Left to himself, Doyle picked up the British custom seal and pitched it against the wall. Then he grabbed up the oil lamp.
"Please don't," Zachery remarked mildly from the doorway. "It'll take us six weeks to requisition another."
Doyle sat it back down on the desk and glared. "Why did you do that? You know there's no medical dispensation. Carstares is smuggling opium and you're letting him get away with it!"
Zachery stooped to retrieve the seal and dropped it on Doyle's desk. "I know he is. You know he is. Carstares knows he is. But Sir Melvin doesn't."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Zachery sat down with a sigh. "Ray, by the time we convinced that bombastic old ass that his chum was smuggling enough opium to choke half of Albert Square, you would've been packed off back to England and Carstares would've been buying his mistress pretty gewgaws with his ill-gotten gains."
Doyle stared at him, eyes darkening with disillusionment. "So you're just going to turn your back and let him get away with it?"
Zachery smiled. "Oh no, I'm not going to do that."
Doyle dropped back into his chair, relieved but shaking his head in confusion. "I don't understand."
"Listen, Ray, we go down to the dock, tell Carstares his ship has been released to sail -- except that the opium has to be burned on the dock. That is the condition of release. He'll raise a fuss, but we'll have the Customs seal in our hands, and he's on a tight schedule. He's already a day late. He's not about to slow that up any more for a few pounds of illegal drugs that he knows would probably be confiscated anyway if he tried to fight. That note to Sir Melvin was a wild card. He was hoping he could slip it through. But he's not fool enough to push it any further. He can't afford to."
"But what you said--"
"Sir Melvin is an ignorant, pompous bastard, and we both know it. But crossing him when we don't need to is stupid. We can take care of it and save him face as well. If we'd rubbed his nose in it, right or wrong, he'd have shipped us both back to England out of pure spite."
Doyle regarded him solemnly. "Until you spoke up, it was only me he was furious with."
"Well, you certainly weren't the shy, retiring lad I've come to know. I thought you were going to thump the bugger."
Staring thoughtfully down at the floor, Doyle said quietly, "Why, Zack? Why did you jump in like that? It didn't involve you."
Zachery studied him. "Do you want to go home, Ray? Back to England?"
Doyle considered it for a long moment. "At first, yes, I did. I was homesick .... or just afraid, I suppose." He hesitated. "Now, I don't know." Then, in a stronger voice, "No, no I don't think I do. I was never really happy there. Here .... maybe ...." He shrugged, then looked up. "That still doesn't answer my question. You do want to stay here. Why did you stick your neck out for me?"
"Because you're my friend," Zachery said simply, honestly. "And I don't want you to go."
There was a sudden sharp sting of tears in the green eyes as he absorbed the words and cherished them. He bit his lip. "You haven't known me very long--"
"How long do I need?" Zachery smiled. "I like you, Raymond Doyle. Believe it or not, you're a quite likable chap."
Doyle's throat felt tight. The man had waited years to be assigned to an Arabian post and he could have lost it in one snap of Sir Melvin's fingers. In spite of Zachery's lightness, it was just now sinking in what he had risked for him.
"Thank you," Doyle said softly. "No one's ever done anything like that for me before."
Zachery didn't try to dismiss it as nothing, for he could see that to young Doyle it was important. For once in his short and dismal life, someone had found Doyle worth protecting and the grateful glow in the green eyes both embarrassed and pleased the older man.
Standing, Zachery gave Doyle a comforting pat on the back. "Come on, tiger, let's go set old Carstares straight, shall we? We'll take a stroll through the market after. You haven't seen much of the city since you've been here. Time to broaden your horizons."
By the time they finished their business at the dock, (leaving a very disgruntled Captain watching his cache of opium smoldering away while interested bystanders circled around trying to inhale a bit of free smoke), it was nearly dusk and the sunset prayers were over. As they ambled through the bazaar, everyone seemed to be making up for their long day of fasting, scurrying to buy dates, honeyed locusts and chunks of roasted lamb. Women, swathed in voluminous robes and veiled so only the flash of dark eyes was visible, carried earthen jugs of water from the communal well in the market square. Street musicians played sitars, flutes and goatskin drums, increasing the decibel level even more, blending a festive air in the gathering twilight. Torches flickered by the doorways of shops and vending carts, and merchants called out shrill advertisements for their wares.
Doyle felt oddly lighthearted, almost giddy in the jostling, noisy crowd. He smiled widely at the passing Arabs and they smiled back, making him feel less like a stranger in a strange land.
Excitement bubbled in his blood like champagne, and he wondered if maybe he hadn't got a whiff of the opium smoke by accident because he couldn't recall ever feeling so bold or alive. The evening air was cooler but still sultry, and he followed Zachery's example and unbuttoned his collar and shirt, letting the light breeze dry the perspiration on his face and throat.
Zachery, even more pleased than Doyle to be mingling with the people he found so fascinating, stopped every few yards to engage shopkeepers and passersby in conversation, eagerly drinking in all the detail. Sir Melvin frowned on his staff leaving the British compound and it had been seldom Zachery had managed to go out into the city to experience the Arabian culture firsthand.
He kept a careful grip on Raymond's elbow, however. The boy's face was flushed and his eyes were wide and bright with the bustle and drama of the bazaar.
When they stopped at a stall filled with a huge array of handpainted porcelain and ceramics, Zachery spoke cheerfully to the owner. The man answered in a desultory fashion. He was a very fat man, and didn't stir from his seat on a huge cushion, his piggish eyes surveying the Englishmen with disdain.
Undaunted, Zachery said something else in Arabic.
The black eyes widened in sudden fury and he called out a flurry of words, mixed liberally with curses that even Doyle could understand -- in tone, if not meaning. Two men came from the back of the shop, obviously the shopkeeper's sons.
"What's wrong?" Doyle asked Zachery shakily.
Glancing from one Arab brute to the other, Zachery responded in his usual breezy manner, "Oh, I'm sure it's nothing. Just a little misunderstanding."
Observing the decidedly bellicose expressions on the faces of all three men, Doyle clutched Zachery's arm urgently. "A little misunderstanding? Zack, let's get the devil out of here."
"Nonsense. It's just a slight problem in communication. I'll straighten it right out."
Doyle's face blanched. "No.... don't say anything--"
Unperturbed by his friend's lack of faith in his linguistic abilities, Zachery tried again. All three men gasped in horror at the Englishman's audacity.
Doyle swallowed. "Uh, it seems you said the wrong thing."
Zachery was baffled. "But I'm certain that was the correct phrasing...."
The three Arabs were now arguing loudly among themselves. No doubt deciding who would get the pleasure of breaking them in two, Doyle guessed sickly. They tossed murderous glares at the oblivious Zachery, who was chewing on his index finger in puzzlement, unaware of his predicament. Deciding their preservation was apparently up to him, Doyle began backing carefully away, tugging Zachery with him. After a few feet, however, he ran into something quite solid. Turning, he looked up into a pair of glowering black eyes in a pock-marked face only a very nearsighted mother could love.
Doyle gulped and ventured a quavering smile. "Hullo there," he said sweetly, then in a whispered aside to Zachery, "Oh god, they're going to kill us."
"Eh?" Zachery glanced at him then at the surrounding wall of very displeased faces. "Yes, I see what you mean. They do seem a trifle upset, don't they?"
Doyle stared at him incredulously. "Zack! What the devil did you say to them?"
"I've been thinking about that, y'know," his friend replied with academic interest, still seemingly insensitive to their peril. "I thought I'd asked him the price of the blue bowl with the curved handles," he made a curving motion with his hands and the Arabs growled in unison. "But I actually might have asked the price of his sister's--"
"Oh Christ." Doyle shut his eyes tightly. "I thought you'd been studying Arabic for years?"
"Well, I have," Zachery retorted, a little offended. "But it's a different thing altogether to speak it, isn't it?"
Doyle opened his eyes in time to see the largest of the brothers move forward and grab Zachery by the shirt collar. Instinctively, Doyle leapt forward and futilely tried to break the grip. A huge arm swatted him to one side like a worrisome gnat, and his glasses went flying. Fortunate, actually, as another of the brothers proceeded to punch him in the eye a split second later, sending him sprawling back against a melon cart. The wood splintered under the impact and fruit went rolling everywhere with mushy splats and the merchant's cries of outrage.
For a second Doyle lay there, dazed. He shook his head to clear the buzz in his addled brain before his vision cleared to focus his customary farsighted blur on the melon in his lap. He looked up and saw in horror that they had turned their wrath back on the one who had insulted their sainted aunt. The largest brother was shaking Zachery like a terrier shakes a rat, and the others stood around waiting for their turn.
Panicked, Doyle did the first thing that came to mind. He picked up an unripe melon and launched it at Zachery's captor. It struck him squarely -- and amazingly -- right in the nose. He yelped and released the Englishman, who dropped like a sack of potatoes. The other two brothers spun around and headed for Doyle, teeth barred in horrible grimaces of fury.
"Oh dear," Doyle said weakly. He scrambled to his feet and dodged one, tripping him headlong into the jumble of smashed fruit. Making a dash for the china cart, Doyle smashed a jug against the side of Brother No. 2's head. Brother No. 1, nursing his broken nose, now gave a roar of pure rage, forgetting Zachery completely as he lumbered toward the little devil-dog of an English. Doyle threw a platter at him, followed by a vase. Meanwhile, the fat father got into the act, screaming -- surprisingly enough -- in English, "My dishes! My dishes! Aiy, Aiy! Allah defend us! Not the dishes!"
The other two brothers were recovering, but so was Zachery, who was getting unsteadily to his feet. Doyle, who was down to small ammunition such as teacups and saucers, decided discretion was most definitely the better part of valor and it was time to make a run for it. He tipped the shelf over on his approaching adversaries, leaped nimbly over the ankle-deep shards of glass, grabbed Zachery by his suspender and pulled him willy-nilly down the street, leaving a laughing and clapping crowd surrounding the debris of the shop. Apparently the family wasn't well loved in the neighborhood.
"Run, dammit!" Doyle yelled as Zachery tried to slow down and look back.
"But I'm sure I could've explained--" Zachery began plaintively.
"Shut up and run," Doyle ordered grimly.
Several blocks away, they ducked into a side alley and leaned against the wall, exhausted and gasping for air. Almost as one, they slid down the wall and sat on the filthy cobblestones, trying to catch their breath.
It gradually occurred to Doyle that Zachery was laughing -- in fact, he was chortling like a drain.
"What's so bloody funny?" Doyle demanded. "We were very nearly murdered back there!"
Zachery turned to him, still chuckling. "Marvelous, wasn't it?"
Doyle opened his mouth, but there seemed to be no words to frame a proper response to such idiocy. Finally he addressed a scrawny stray dog who sat lazily scratching fleas a few yards away. "The man's mad. Totally mad."
Zachery laughed even harder. "Oh, come, old son, admit it. You enjoyed the hell out of that. Your eyes are sparkling like Chinese fireworks. You bloody loved it."
"I did?" Doyle thought about it for a moment. Adrenaline still pumped through his bloodstream, and although he had caught his breath now, his heart thumped with lingering excitement. Enjoy it? He remembered the particularly satisfying crunch of the melon impacting with the Arab's nose and the musically violent crash of breaking glass.
Slowly, reluctantly, a whimsical smile grew. "You know, I think I really did. Perhaps there's more of my family in me than I imagined." That thought sobered him, uncertain if he cared for the idea -- after all, he'd hated his family for the very aggressive instincts he'd just displayed.
"Eh," Zachery broke into his thoughts, "nothing to be ashamed of in being able to defend yourself -- or in defending a mate. You were fantastic."
Doyle's smile returned and he felt a tiny flare of pride. "I was, wasn't I?" Running the battle over in his mind, he felt rather good about it on the whole. Zachery had defended him against Sir Melvin and now he had returned the favor. That was what friendship was about, wasn't it? And now he truly did have a friend.
Feeling he needed to make something clear, however, he confessed, "I was scared, though. The whole time, I was scared witless."
"So?" Zachery laughed delightedly. "Raymond, my dear, did you see the size of those chaps? Even one of them out-numbered both of us." He shook his head in admiration. "I wasn't much help to you, I'm afraid. But I've always been terrible at that sort of thing. I'll have to leave the brawling to you."
"But--" Doyle broke off, totally confused at the assumption of his expertise. He took a deep breath and decided he felt too good -- except for his eye which was rapidly beginning to swell -- to think about it now. "I suppose we should be getting back to the compound."
"You've lost your spectacles," Zachery suddenly noticed. "Can you see all right without them?"
"Well, the world is a bit fuzzy round the edges, but I can manage. Never mind, I have an extra pair back in my room." They stood and Doyle peered cautiously around the corner. Whatever confidence Zachery seemed to have developed in his pugilistic abilities, he wasn't quite ready for another row just yet. "It looks clear. Let's go home."
"Oh no," Zachery protested. "It's early yet. There are other markets in Aden."
Doyle stopped. "Zachery," he cautioned, "I don't think--"
Ignoring the warning, the older man continued cheerfully, "And I'm still keen to practice my Arabic."
Eyes widening in alarm, Doyle pelted after him. "Zachery, wait!"
The man looked over the top of his spectacles as Bodie entered the tent. "Well, hello. Come to borrow another book?"
He spoke in perfect, cultured English, and the young Sheik answered in the same, with only a small trace of accent.
"I have read them all." He smiled fondly at his mentor as he dropped gracefully down on a cushion near him. "And so have you. Thrice over, I should imagine."
"If something is finely written, it can suffer being read a hundred times without squeezing it dry. And the best fruits are those you must eat slowly. If you gulp them too quickly, you lose the texture and the flavor."
"If that is your clever way of telling me to stop skimming Dante, you are not being very subtle, Cambridge."
"Dante is one thing," the older man admonished lightly, "but when you race through Cervantes, it is a sin. But then, you've always preferred poetry, haven't you? Byron, Blake, Keats..."
"And who was it gave me my first book of poetry?" Bodie grinned. "You have only yourself to blame."
"Actually, I believe it was your mother who gave it to you," Cambridge said thoughtfully.
The smile froze then faded on the handsome face. He changed the subject pointedly. "We will be taking a caravan into Aden for the festival of Eid al Fitr. I will buy you some new books then. What would you like?"
The old man watched his young friend sadly. Even after so many years the bitterness still burned in Bodie like corrosive acid; the wounds never healed. He loved the English literature and poetry while professing an open hatred for the English. He treated his British tutor like a well beloved and honored grandfather, yet would not even speak the name of his British mother. The dichotomy of his feelings was so intense, so violent, Cambridge marveled that it had not torn the boy apart long ago. Only Cambridge knew how deeply Bodie had loved his mother, and how much he loved/hated her now for so many reasons -- not the least of which was the sense of isolation he felt. While his people accepted him without reservation, Bodie couldn't accept himself. He could never escape the fact that what he hated most was inside of him, part of him.
"I asked what books you would like," Bodie repeated patiently, pouring out a cup of Turkish coffee.
"Oh, anything will do. I'm not choosey."
Bodie laughed. "Of course you are. The last time you berated me for twenty minutes on my poor choices. Tripe, I believe you called them."
"So make use of that fine but rarely utilized mind of yours and pick something decent!"
The blue eyes twinkled with mischief. "Decent? I was rather hoping to run across a trunk of French pornography."
Cambridge made a face. "Boring, my dear boy. Very mechanical and utterly predictable. In any case, British pornography is far superior."
"Oh, most definitely. Queen Victoria has done wonders for the male libido. All these high collars and bustles. In a prim and proper age imagination soars and vice, like mold, grows best in dark and hidden places."
Chuckling, Bodie said, "You old reprobate."
"Old is the key word, I'm afraid."
The young man's eyes were warm and affectionate. "You'll never be old, my dear friend."
"My creaking bones are delighted to hear that. But speaking of age, did you think I had forgotten what day this is? Your twenty-first birthday, yes?"
Bodie grimaced. "As my Uncle reminds me repeatedly."
"Hassid is still haranguing you to take a wife?"
"Incessantly. One would think I will be castrated tomorrow for all the urgency he gives the matter."
"He is only concerned with your welfare, Bodie," Cambridge commented gently.
"I realize that. But--"
"But you fear you will make the same kind of husband as your father did," Cambridge finished.
The blue eyes glittered angrily. "Watch how you tread, old man."
Cambridge only smiled. "I thought you said I wasn't old."
Bodie relaxed slightly. "Nor will you get older if you do not learn to curb your tongue."
Not at all impressed by the threat, Cambridge chuckled. "And what will you do, oh great Sheik? Chop off my infidel head?"
Bodie flushed. "Do not be ridiculous. I only meant that you should--"
"Old dogs and new tricks," Cambridge calmly cut in. "I left England nearly thirty years ago because I spoke my mind, and it's too much to expect me to change at this late date."
The Sheik let out his breath in exasperation. "Very well, so say what is on your mind and have done with it."
"It's nothing very profound, I'm afraid. Only that I tend to agree with Hassid. You should marry."
Bodie stared at him, stunned, expecting almost anything but that. "You have never agreed with my Uncle in your life. Why now? And about this of all things?"
"I could care less about continuing the great and noble line of Jafarr. But I do care about you, and you worry me, lad. I can see how lonely you are. You need something, someone--"
"Allah defend me!" Bodie sat his cup down with a clatter. "If it is not my uncle wanting to breed me like a prize camel, it is you concerned with my emotional stability! This is bloody pathetic. As you pointed out, I am twenty-one. I can make my own decisions, thank you very much. Now let us drop the topic, shall we. I am bored to tears with it."
"Very well," Cambridge agreed amicably. "But I just want to add one thing if I may."
Bodie regarded him with suspicion. "Yes?"
"You are neither your father nor your mother, Bodie. You are yourself. You have your father's temper, sensual nature and -- yes -- his possessiveness. But you also inherited his excellent mind and appreciation of beauty. You have your mother's spirit and willfulness, but her gentleness and sensitivity is yours as well. They were both stubborn, strong-willed individuals and I'm afraid their traits are magnified in you. But I also knew them both very, very well, and you are all the good things they were, and very little of the bad. I know you don't want to hear any of this, so I won't say it twice. Just remember that history doesn't have to repeat itself -- not if you are cautious. Find someone for yourself, Bodie. And, no, I don't mean one of these submissive, well-trained Arab girls. It wouldn't suit at all. Find someone with fire to complement your own, someone with intelligence and spirit ... and an understanding soul. Then, perhaps you can stop feeling so alone."
"Are you quite finished?" The face that turned to him could have been carved in stone.
Cambridge nodded, spreading his hands.
"Good. Then I have one question for the Oracle. Where am I to find this paragon?"
Cambridge grinned, amused. "I have no idea."
"I must keep in mind that you never married yourself. Obviously you never found her either."
"Oh, but I did," Cambridge murmured.
The old man shook his head, dispelling ancient fantasies. "Never mind that." He leaned forward and smiled. "I have a present for you. Hold out your hand."
Intrigued, Bodie did as instructed and something cool dropped with a sensuous tingle into his open palm. It was short silver chain; incredibly delicate, finely woven in a slender rope that glinted and reflected in the light.
"What is this?"
"A bracelet. They tell me that, ages ago, it was once a necklace, but each time it was broken, it shortened a bit. It is very old."
"It has no clasp," Bodie commented, admiring the craftsmanship of the pattern.
"Of course not. The end links are welded together and it is not to be removed until you can offer it to your love. Hold out your wrist."
Bodie hesitated. "It is too fine. I would lose it -- break it."
"It is stronger than you imagine," Cambridge said softly. "Are you refusing the gift?"
"Hold out your wrist."
Bodie obeyed and Cambridge use the tongs to pick up a red hot coal from the brazier. He touched it to the ends of the chain as they were wrapped around the young man's wrist, taking care to keep the heat away from the skin. After a few moments, he returned the coal to the fire, but held Bodie still while the metal cooled and hardened to complete the circle.
The chain fell down on Bodie's wrist. He looked at Cambridge, bewildered. It seemed a very odd gift from the often crusty old man. "I thank you. But... Why this?"
"The gift is not mine. It is from your mother."
Bodie's hand jerked up as if the metal still burned. "What?"
"The chain was hers. Her father gave it to her when her mother died. It has been in your mother's family for generations. She asked that I give it to you when you came of age .... or found your true love. It was important to her that you have it."
Cambridge waited, half expecting the volatile young man to rip it from his wrist and cast it away. But Bodie only stared at it pensively, caressing the bright links with his finger. It was a long time before he spoke, and when he did Cambridge had to strain to hear the words.
"She gave it to you, not to my father."
"She never gave it to anyone," Cambridge corrected gently. "She left it in my trust to give to you." He sighed, knowing that this was painful, too. "She did love him, Bodie. In her way. It was not lack of love that destroyed her, lad, it was .... pride."
The Sheik stood and walked to the door. He stopped at the entrance, but did not turn.
"I will wear it, Cambridge," he said steadily, only the tense set of his shoulders betraying his emotions. "But I wear it in honor of you, not her. My family, my people, are of the desert, not some distant land of which I have only read. She brought dishonor and shame to our tents and I disavow her heritage and her blood."
He swept out of the tent without looking back.
Feeling weary, Cambridge sat down and stared in the smoldering fire.
"And will you also tear out your blue eyes and burn your white skin dark?" he mused to himself. "Oh, my poor Bodie. Must you hate yourself so much? There is too much of your mother in you -- more than you know. Pride, damnable pride!"
Doyle sat against a sun-warmed wall sketching an old man who was contentedly chewing qat a few yards away. Zachery had told him qat was a mild narcotic leaf favored by the Arabs. The old geezer was ostensibly minding a vegetable cart, but was spending much more time dozing in the shade. He had an interesting face, sun-darkened to mahogany, leathery and creased with age, teeth long since history, but there was still a rather noble set to his brow and hints of the virile strength he had once possessed. Capturing that melancholy loss was Doyle's goal. He kept stopping, rubbing out his marks and trying a new tack until he finally caught the mood he wanted.
Leaning back and closing his eyes, Doyle ignored the persistent buzz of flies and the hardness of the stone under his behind. The flush of successful creative energy was enough to satisfy him for the moment.
He had Zachery Hart to thank for that.
Not so many weeks ago Doyle had surrendered his aspirations, crushed by the contemptuous disparagement of his uncle and, more importantly, by his own feelings of inadequacy and spinelessness. How could he possibly hope to create something splendid and worthwhile when he felt so totally worthless himself? It was Zachery who shook him out of his self-pity, made him fight to win back his diminished self respect, helped him see there was more to himself than he had dreamed. More practically, Zachery had bought him a sketch pad and charcoals, instinctively knowing it was what Doyle needed to push himself into trying again.
Doyle smiled to himself, remembering the scene. Not more than forty-five minutes after the "battle of the blue bowl" as they now called it, Zachery had dragged him unwillingly into a different bazaar. By this time Doyle had reluctantly decided that, as much as he was fond of Zachery, the man had about as much common sense as a goose. Their narrow escape from the Brothers Grimm had fazed him not at all; in fact, he plunged right in, spraying badly accented Arabic to anyone who would listen. Doyle had gritted his teeth and prayed very hard. But this time there were no problems, and the shopkeepers were all smiles and Arabic salutations -- from heart to forehead with their fingertips. Doyle learned how to return the gesture.
Zachery dragged him into a stationer's shop at one point and asked the clerk for a sketch pad and drawing materials. Doyle had protested, but Zachery had shoved them in his hands and told him to throw them away if he liked.
"Maybe I'm wrong," Zachery had said, "but I think you're good at it. I reckon it must be something you've worked at a bit. If not, pitch it away and forget it. But only do it if you want to. It's your life, Raymond. You have to follow your heart."
"And if everyone else thinks I'm wrong, that I'm going in the wrong direction, what then?"
"Ignore everyone else. You have to trust your heart. Even if it's wrong, it's right. However it turns out, it's better to try than to never know."
So Doyle had tried and had discovered to his delight that his fingers moved with a will of their own, feverishly sketching -- landscapes, architecture and people. After the soft, civilized smoothness of the estate at home in England, this land brought visions to his mind and onto paper that thrilled him with their passion and starkness. Some drawings were harsh, almost violent, some were mellow and serene, but all had a strength and depth he had never found in England. Perhaps because he had never found it in himself until now.
The secret was whispered to him softly, in slow, comforting degrees. Freedom. He was free of his family, free of disapproval, free of being unable to compete in their world, free of feeling the runt, the useless one. Here, he was just Raymond Doyle. Different, yes, because he was English, but being different was nothing new; he had always been that. Here, however, no one cared that he was different. Inside the compound, he was mostly ignored or treated with quiet courtesy. They saw very little of Sir Melvin who had his own, much more aloof circle of cronies. Doyle had Zachery, who was a constant and steadfast friend. He was a wonderful anchor; someone to show his drawings to, someone who would criticize or praise -- but always honestly. An equal Doyle could talk to, listen to, learn from.
Life was good, and for once Raymond Doyle was getting a hefty taste of it.
While it was Sir Melvin's unwritten rule that they should remain inside the British compound unless sent on specific errands, Doyle and Zachery quickly fell into the habit of leaving every evening to explore the city. So far, no one had noticed their absence and if it did come to Sir Melvin's ears, there really wasn't much he could do about it bar sending them packing. The chances of his going to those extremes for such a minor infraction of protocol, however, were slim, so they didn't worry about it. There were too many others in the Embassy who also sought their pleasures in the city.
Zachery would wander the marketplaces and engage whoever was willing in conversation while Doyle would settle in an interesting place with his sketch pad and work happily until the light completely faded and he could no longer see the paper.
He had stopped fretting about Zachery creating another disaster -- while quite aware that, of the two of them, he would have to be the one to deal with trouble if it arose -- it simply wasn't in Zachery's optimistic nature to worry or to even recognize trouble when he plowed hip deep in it. Doyle had come to the fatalistic realization that, if Zachery got himself in difficulty, it would be up to Doyle to get him out of it the best he could, and that was that. Stifling Zachery's impulsively easy-going manner would be a crime. It was what made Zachery special; simply part of the incredibly accepting, open person he was.
Zachery Hart had the amazing ability of appreciating people on their own terms, and even if he didn't always approve of what they did, he almost never judged them harshly. Even Sir Melvin received the benefit of his accepting nature.
"It's not his fault, is it?" Zachery had told Doyle. "It's all he knows. Certainly he's a bigoted, pompous bastard, but if you're raised up from the cradle to be a bigoted, pompous bastard, what're you to do?"
"I was brought up to be just that," Doyle had pointed out, a little peeved.
"Yes, but you're different, aren't you? That's the bonus, y'see. There's always the odd duck that flies a tad off center to the others. That's the hope, y'know. That different duck. It's not that the others are wrong precisely; it's just that maybe this one has found a better way and sooner or later, with luck, the others will realize that, too. That's progress, that is. What you have to do is learn to take the ordinary blokes as they are. Look at you, Ray. They never bothered to accept you as being a bit out of their line, just stepped on you hard because you didn't fit the mould. But then you turned around and hated them and what they stood for because they wouldn't let you be yourself. It's a vicious cycle, isn't it? Everyone hating everyone else because they don't quite fit to measure. If people would be a jot more easy to please, the world would be a much more peaceful place.
"But there's always change. It grinds slow -- like the mills of god -- but it does grind. I can deal with chaps like ol' Melvin easy enough because they're a dying breed. They don't know it, but their time is limited. The British Empire won't last forever."
Doyle had been amazed. It was a totally new concept to him. "It won't?"
"Of course not. It all goes in cycles, like I said. I'll give Britain another twenty, thirty years, maybe a little longer before someone else takes over."
"America?" Doyle asked, intrigued as if he was listening to a soothsayer.
"You must be joking. Not a chance. They're too young and disorganized. Have you ever met a Yank?"
Doyle shook his head, eyes wide.
"Dumb as a post, mate. Nah, they're too confused, poor things. Like bastard children or mongrel pups, they don't have a feeling of unity yet. Aggressive enough, I suppose, but they can't make up their bloody minds which direction to go; pushy as the devil one minute, self-effacing the next. No, I think it'll be Germany. They're tough and cool and disciplined. And aggressive. They're the ones to watch."
Listening to Zachery was entertaining if only because his theories changed so rapidly. The next day he was predicting another Napoleon would spring up and France would conquer the world; the day after, he was saying Australia was a sleeper and would burst out as a great world power. Doyle asked him once why he was so certain the United States would never be much of anything, and Zachery replied cryptically that he had an Aunt who lived in Tulsa.
Doyle stretched luxuriously just as the horn sounded for sunset prayers. Immediately everyone in the vicinity rolled out their prayer rugs or knelt on the bare stone and began their lengthy prayers to Allah. Feeling as out of place as a Protestant in a Catholic church during High Mass, Doyle just sat in silence, experiencing a bizarre sense of guilt. Although he had never been particularly religious, he said the Lord's Prayer under his breath and felt strangely better, having done his duty in his own fashion.
When the prayer finally ended, there was a tremendous whoop all around the square and Doyle jumped, startled by this new development. It took a second for him to remember what day this was. The end of the fast of Ramadan. This was the beginning of the three-day feast of....whatever it was called.
Men ran about the marketplace with a sense of recklessness, gorging themselves on figs and dates and whatever came to hand with more abandon than usual. Doyle noticed there were more women in the square than was customary. Wrapped in their chador, the concealing clothing, they gathered in giggling clusters, watching the men and making whispered comments.
It was then he noticed the horse. Standing near the well, it tossed its proud head before deigning to drink the water its master offered. It was an incredibly beautiful animal; that ghostly grey/white that only Arabian horses seem to possess, muscles powerful in the haunch and forelegs, heavy chest and long graceful neck with the small, elegant diamond head and large, liquidly dark, intelligent eyes.
It was rare to see a horse in the square. Horses were a rich man's animal and this particular market was not one of the larger or more impressive ones. Camels could be found almost anywhere, but horses had an expensive price tag -- they had to be fed and watered and pampered to an exorbitant degree. This particular stallion looked royally pampered and smugly accustomed to it. The traditional Arabian fittings were elaborate and costly, from the black silk tassels and silver decorations on the shining bridle to the matching inlay of silver on the saddle. The horse projected an arrogance that was almost startling, as if the animal was conscious of its own worth; it had a personality and haughty presence Doyle found fascinating and amusing.
In the rapidly fading light, he flipped to a clean page and began to sketch as the lanterns and torches were being lit all around the square and well as twilight encroached.
Its master, obviously more concerned with his animal's well being than his own, waited patiently for the stallion to finish drinking. That action gave Doyle pause, glancing around at all the others in the square grabbing and gulping at the food and drink after the day's fast.
The horseman was dressed in black, but his robe was embroidered with a silver strip, and the material shimmered with a voluptuous hint of richness. His kafiyah -- the Arabian headdress -- was also black, held with a twisted rope entwined with thick silver thread.
Only when the horse had drunk his fill did the man draw water to quench his own thirst. Doyle kept sketching until he could no longer see the page, then sighed and flipped the folder closed.
Still intrigued, he gathered his things and moved toward the well.
The man spun around, hand slipping quickly to his belt where a wicked looking knife rested in a sheath against his side. The hand hesitated, then fell as he judged there was no threat.
Doyle started to speak again, but everything in his mind evaporated as the Arab's face was revealed in the torchlight. The eyes were unexpectedly -- startlingly -- blue. The face was so distinctly British it would have been unremarkable in Trafalgar Square or Picadilly.
The amethyst eyes swept over him scornfully, then paused again at Doyle's face, a spark of interest flaring.
"Yes?" It sounded slightly more cordial than the hard expression indicated. He looked like a dangerous man, and Doyle, despite his new-found boldness, wasn't particularly interested in irritating dangerous men.
"I beg your pardon, I was just admiring your horse, actually."
It must have been the right thing to say for the man smiled, teeth flashing white and even, softening the hardness and transforming him from coldly attractive to strikingly handsome. "Thank you. He is rather special, my Shaizar."
The man's English was excellent -- but he looked English. A trifle confused, Doyle asked, "Are you British?"
The blue eyes frosted. "I am Bedouin." Then he added something in Arabic that sounded like a curse.
The chilled tone of the answer and the unconcealed distaste for Doyle's assumption was annoying. "Congratulations," Doyle snapped. "I'm British, you know, so I wasn't exactly intending an insult. It's a natural mistake, after all. You speak English very well and you look--"
"I spoke English because you did," the other cut in rudely. "I prefer to speak my native tongue."
A part of Doyle advised him to back off while he had the chance, but another part -- the same rebellious bit that had taken on three angry Arabs with nothing more formidable than melons and crockery -- was irritated. "Well now, that'll cut our conversation short. My Arabic is somewhat limited."
The beautiful mouth sneered. "Typical. You English come to our land, take what you want, never even make an effort to learn our customs or language--"
"Excuse me," Doyle's temper flared. "You underestimate the complexity of your language, sir. I've been in Aden precisely three weeks and five days. Do you think your `native tongue' so simple a bloody parrot could learn it that fast?"
Staring into the angry cat-green eyes, the other man suddenly smiled. He made the heart-to-head gesture and said with total politeness, "Forgive me. I did not realize. It is a poor excuse for my boorishness, but I beg you accept my apology. You are very welcome to my country, Mister--?"
"Doyle. Raymond Doyle." He relaxed, his bad temper fading, unwillingly charmed by the disarming smile. "Thank you. Knowing some of my countrymen as I do, I seriously doubt if you have the market on ill manners." He smiled ruefully. "Actually, I cannot fault you. It was I, after all, who intruded on you."
The Arab's head tilted a little, gazing at Doyle with increased fascination. "Not at all," he murmured.
A little uneasy under the scrutiny, Doyle returned to his original interest. "I do like your horse very much. May I touch him?"
The other man nodded and turned to catch the stallion's head, whispering something in the sensitive ear in Arabic. "Proceed. He will accept you now."
Doyle stroked the powerful neck, feeling the muscles ripple under his touch. "He's magnificent. Where did you get him?"
An amused eyebrow lifted. "A wise man does not ask a Bedouin where they acquired property."
Doyle remembered a remark of Sir Melvin's about the Bedouins being `a pack of thieves.' "You mean he is stolen?" he asked absently, still stroking the horse, mesmerized by the quiet power he felt under the perfectly groomed coat.
There was a moment of silence, then the man laughed softly. "You are very brave or very foolish, English. Some would have your head for such a suggestion."
Doyle blinked and looked up, only now realizing what he had said and mortified by it. "But I didn't mean--"
"No matter. I am not offended. No, I did not steal Shaizar. My father bred his sire. But I confess I might have been tempted to do so if I had seen him and he had not been mine by right."
Offering a final pat to the impressive animal, Doyle backed away. "Anyone would be," Doyle replied lamely, although he was positive there would be few foolish enough to try to steal anything from this man. "He's wonderful. Does the name Shalizar have a meaning?"
"Shaizar," the other corrected. "It has several interpretations in our dialect. The Wind is one. Wild Wind is another."
"Ah, perfect." Doyle hesitated. "Well, thank you for letting me pet him. I love horses, but since I left England, this is the closest I've got to one. I've disturbed you long enough..."
"No, do not go."
Doyle glanced down at the hand that gripped his arm, then up into the dark blue eyes. They stared at each other for a long, long moment and the breath in Doyle's lungs remained in stasis, captured and waiting for some signal to give it permission to move out or in.
The stallion tossed its head, jingling the silver trappings musically, and Doyle blinked.
Breaking the entrancing hold of those eyes with an effort, he let out his breath and glanced around the square, catching sight of Zachery wandering about like an absent-minded professor who was sure he had misplaced something without quite remembering what it could be.
"My friend is looking for me."
"Let him look." The grip on his arm tightened and the blue eyes captured Doyle's again and held the gaze with arrogant ease.
Strangely disturbed, Doyle finally managed to pull away. "I must go. Thank you again ....?"
But the man offered no name, just continued to look at Doyle with that oddly intriguing and hungry expression.
Doyle found it difficult to turn away, something in him urging him to stay and learn more of this man, but his more rational side advised him to get away very fast indeed.
He walked off quickly without looking back, seeking out his safe and comfortable friend, who greeted him happily and began regaling him with stories he had picked up in the marketplace.
As they started to leave, Doyle ventured a glance toward the well, but the horse and rider were gone.
Bodie watched with narrowed eyes as Doyle moved across the square and met with a particularly gaunt Englishman. They strolled along the street, chatting with a kind of easy bonhomie that set Bodie's teeth on edge. Obviously Doyle would rather converse with that skinny Englishman than with him. Well, skinny Englishmen could be dealt with, if necessary.
He spotted Gasim trotting across the square -- heading for the closest brothel, no doubt. Brothels and easy women had abruptly become insipid and boring to Bodie. He had seen what he wanted, and nothing else would suit. He called to Gasim and the man hesitated, glancing longingly toward the brightly painted house at the edge of the square, but he answered the summons willingly.
"Gasim, I have a task for you."
"Yes, my lord?"
"That English there -- the little one with green eyes -- I want you to follow him. Find where he stays. It will be in the British compound, undoubtedly, but I want to know precisely where."
Curious, Gasim observed the object he was to pursue, then looked back at his master. "You want me to follow that one?"
"Is that not what I said?" Bodie snapped. Then he put his hand on his man's shoulder, relenting his stern demeanor. "You will be well repaid for your effort, Gasim."
Even knowing this was true, Gasim sighed at the wasted time. Still, what Adu Bodie wanted, he must have.
It was hot in the little room -- oppressively so. While this wasn't unusual, the restless feeling that plagued Doyle was. He hadn't been able to shake it since he had seen the blue-eyed Bedouin by the well.
He went out onto the balcony, hoping to catch a cool breeze. Leaning back against the iron rail, he closed his eyes and took in the heavy scent of jasmine. It was a heady, sensual fragrance that stole all sensible thoughts from his mind; made him envision forbidden pleasures and abandoned morals.
A jingling note interrupted his fantasies, and he opened his eyes and looked down at the street below. This section of the building overlooked the wall of the compound which bordered on a quiet, residential section of the city.
A horse stood near a gaslight. White and beautifully muscled, it tossed its head with impatience, wanting to be off; its nervous movements causing the jingling notes as the silver decorations clinked together. Then he saw its rider standing in the shadows, no more than a darker blur against the blackness.
Drawn against his will, he leaned over the rail and watched in fascination. After a moment the man stepped into the circle of light, black robes shimmering with rich mystery. The face looked up, meeting his gaze with an all-too-familiar arrogance.
An odd shiver raced up Doyle's spine. The man was incredibly handsome, face perfect and symmetrical in every line, eyes dark and mysterious in the smoky light.
For a long time they regarded each other solemnly, a sizzle of excitement coursing between them. Then the man leaped into the saddle and rode away, leaving Doyle feeling curiously bereft and a little disappointed.
It wasn't until he returned to his bed that he realized he was hard and aching with arousal. Trying to ignore it as he slipped under the sheet, all he could see was the strongly beautiful face and the wonderful eyes holding his own.
He tossed uneasily in his bed, wondering why the stranger had been on this particular street. Even more, wondering what there was about the man that disturbed him so.
The pleasurable ache in his groin intensified and he touched himself, his fertile mind supplying other hands and other touches.
Realizing what he was thinking, he abruptly jerked his hands away and buried them under the pillow. He was well aware of his own sensual impulses. From a very early age he had learned to satisfy himself. Whatever the Church or clergy said, he could never believe it was all that bad -- certainly not enough to stop doing something that felt so good. But all his fantasies had never included a man before. This was new and perturbing.
Determinedly, he tried to summon an image of the German chambermaid back home -- buxom and willing. He had nearly had her once, but his brother Manfred had returned home at an inopportune moment and caught them in a compromising situation. The jovial lecture he'd received afterwards put him off sex for a good two weeks. The gist of it was that it was fine to indulge in a bit of slap and tickle with the maids as long as you remembered they were well beneath your station and that any little by-blows produced must be dealt with discreetly, preferably deported to Australia along with the mother and any of her relatives with loose tongues. Doyle had fancied himself in love with Helga at the time, and was almost prepared to fight the issue -- until the next day when he discovered Manfred busily doing what he'd nearly done with Helga with her happy cooperation. After that, the entire situation hardly seemed to matter. It was more proof, if he'd ever needed it, that being ruthless, cold and aggressive was the only way to win anything. And it didn't alter the fact he couldn't find it in himself to be any of those things. A square peg in a world of round holes. At the ripe age of fifteen, some part of him had given up, totally outclassed by six brothers, an uncle and a father who could do everything better, faster and more thoroughly than he could.
The weeks in Aden had changed his mind about much of that. But his sexual experience was still confined to the comfort of his hand. Not that he hadn't been sorely tempted by some of the street women in Aden but, surprisingly, Zachery had put his foot down very firmly on that subject, telling Ray it wasn't a proper way to start -- not to mention that most of them probably carried the French disease.
Doyle took a deep breath and turned over on his back, his manhood still obstinately stiff. The minute he touched it, however, an image of blue eyes and a definitely masculine face appeared again.
Oh god, he thought wearily, with all my other problems, I can't be unnatural as well. He had heard of such tendencies, of course. Referred to obliquely in books, more crudely giggled over by stable boys, but he had never really understood what it was about. Until now. His body seemed to understand far more than his mind at the moment, but he still wasn't sure what it implied.
Before he could puzzle over it further, there was a sound on the balcony outside. He sat up in bed, listening. Again, there was a soft scraping noise.
Scrambling back into his robe, he went out. He leaned over the rail, but the path below was empty, as was the street over the wall. A little disappointed, he had turned to go back when a hand clamped securely over his mouth and an arm banded like warm iron around his chest.
"Do not call out," a soft voice instructed.
An odd little thrill raced through Doyle as he recognized the sound. He nodded and the hands released him.
Doyle turned to face the intruder. The silver splash of moonlight easily confirmed the identity. "How did you get in? The guards--"
"Are sleepy," the man said with a lazy smile. "And stupid. I climbed the wall, of course. Your security is abysmal."
Doyle let out a shaky breath. "So .... why? I mean...."
"Why did I come? I wanted to see you, speak to you. You ran off very quickly."
"Oh." Doyle wasn't sure how to point out that climbing a wall and up a trellis wasn't precisely the proper British way to pursue an interesting conversation. But then again, he couldn't truly say he was sorry. He had been thinking about this man for hours, and the reality was even more striking than the memory.
They regarded each other in silence. Finally, the stranger moved forward and touched Doyle's face, tilting the chin up in the moonlight.
"You are very beautiful, English."
Startled, Doyle shifted out of his grip and retreated nervously until he backed against the metal railing. "I beg your pardon?" He was terribly frustrated that his voice chose that moment to revert to an adolescent squeak.
"No one has told you this before?" Amused, the Sheik stepped closer until they were so near Doyle could smell the scent of strange spice, tobacco and a dash of horse. It increased the man's enticement, and along with the smooth handsomeness of the face in the moonlight, Doyle's breath caught in his throat at his body's sensual response.
"No, not really," he said stupidly. "I mean, it's not really something...." he trailed off helplessly.
"You have a face that is difficult to forget."
Suddenly Doyle felt the hands upon him again and he was being abruptly and soundly kissed. The mouth was firm and knowing, turning the smaller man's knees to jelly and igniting a flashfire that fueled his earlier arousal to new and dizzying heights. His mouth opened instinctively under the assault, accepting the tongue that plundered him with ruthless and demanding passion.
Doyle's head was swimming when he was finally released, and scorching blue eyes devoured him from under a fringe of long, black lashes. A deft hand unfastened his robe and slipped inside to caress bare flesh as Doyle gasped in reaction.
Muscles lax in the firm embrace, Doyle somehow dredged up the ability to speak. "This is madness .... insane .... I don't understand.... What do you want?"
The man's other hand toyed with the curls at the nape of the bewildered boy's neck. "I did not realize I was being so subtle. I want you, English."
Doyle swallowed helplessly, thoughts in a whirl, senses intoxicated by the slow, tantalizing caresses. "You said .... you wanted to talk."
The sensuous mouth curved into a wicked smile. "I lied."
A finger swept over his nipple and Doyle gave a helpless whimper of pleasure, lured even closer until their groins pressed together, the Arab's arousal apparent even through the layers of material between them.
A loud knock on the door froze them both.
"Tell them to go away," he ordered, lips on Doyle's neck just below the ear.
Doyle shivered as the teeth nibbled on his earlobe and the tongue darted inside, hot then cool with teasing breath.
The knock repeated, louder.
Doyle pushed against the broad chest. "It must be Zachery--"
"I can't. He knows I'm in. He'll wonder--"
The Arab took his shoulders in a crushing grip. "This Zachery, is he more to you than I?"
The haughty tone jerked Doyle from his mesmerized state. "I don't even bloody know your name," he pointed out with irritation.
"Ray?" Zachery called from outside the door. "Is something wrong?"
"Get rid of him," the man demanded in an autocratic growl.
"No." While still painfully aroused, Doyle's head had cleared enough to realize he didn't care for the masterful manner. He had had his fill of commands in his life. He wrenched away from the hold. "Leave me alone, damn it."
The Arab took a deep breath, resisting the impulse to force Doyle's surrender. "You do not mean that."
"Don't I?" Doyle snarled, furious at how easily he had fallen under the man's spell, burning with embarrassment at how he had melted like wax in the domineering embrace. Fantasies were bad enough, but surrendering to the reality was disgraceful. "Go to hell."
Frustrated and angry, the other mocked, "Why do you tease and delay? You want what I want! You burn--"
Another rap at the door, softer now. Zack would give up and go away in a moment -- and with him would go Doyle's best excuse for running.
But the Arab caught his arm as he turned. "What is he to you?" he hissed jealously.
"It's none of your business, is it?" Doyle retorted, jerking his arm free.
"You want me," his tormentor stated with supreme confidence. "Why do you deny it?"
Even now, furious and annoyed, Doyle couldn't. His skin tingled at the touch and the eyes were seducing him.
"I want you to leave," Doyle said flatly, and it was only half true. He was too confused to know what he really wanted. But he purposely retied his robe, stalked to the door and opened it, deliberately refusing to look back to see if his request had been granted.
Zachery had started to turn away as the door opened. "Oh, I thought you must be asleep. Did I disturb you?"
"Not at all," Doyle assured him. He finally steeled himself to glance toward the balcony, but it was empty. He sighed, partially in relief, partially in regret. "In fact, your timing is impeccable."
"Whatever do you mean?"
Doyle just shook his head ruefully. "Only that you saved me from . . . a very odd dream."
"This is going to be a right pain in the arse," Zachery said in annoyance.
Doyle looked up from his work. "What's that?"
"Several of the treaty agreements expire in a few months and renewing them is going to be beastly difficult."
"Of course. Why else do you think Britain has a toe-hold in Arabia? The French would love to get their greasy fingers on some of these ports. They control most of North Africa already. The only reason we have Arabia is that we wrangled a deal with the current emirs and sheiks to handle all foreign affairs so they don't have to bother. They enjoy the weight of the British Empire without most of the complications of a colonial force. Arabia isn't a colony or part of the Commonwealth, just an auxiliary to it. They are still, formally at least, autonomous.
"I realize that," Doyle said impatiently. Zachery's penchant for lectures could occasionally be tiring. "I was asking about the treaties."
"Well, in the absence of signed agreements, British authority in Aden is null and void. A fact which will delight the French no end."
"And we have a rather tricky situation on our hands. Ninety-nine percent of the treaties have been renewed with no trouble; however, there is one that presents a problem."
"There was a nasty tribal skirmish out in the desert a few years ago. Generally that doesn't affect us. The new dominant force in the area is usually only too happy to sign the pact -- it cements their power officially, you see. But this particular case is deuced difficult." Zachery sighed and shook his head. "Not that I can really blame the bloke for turning sour, all things considered."
"Well, we had a treaty with the current sheik's father some years ago, but when there was a rather nasty little war and a rival sheik, Ali Fasik came into power, we naturally signed an agreement with him. Unfortunately, the situation wasn't as settled as we imagined. Within a year of Sheik Nassar's death, his son systematically and quite ruthlessly ousted Fasik. Now we are faced with a man who trusts the British only slightly less than he would someone selling excursions to the South Pole."
"What happens if he refuses to sign the treaty?" Doyle was curious.
"Nothing immediately. However, the Jafarr are well respected, and their influence is great with the other tribes. Sheik Adu Bodie bin Jafarr has a lot of friends. It is conceivable that he could even convince many of the other sheiks to breach their treaties. In which case, British claim in this area would be in serious jeopardy."
Zachery shrugged. "Odd, isn't it? Only a sheet of paper prevents us from being out on our ears. Serves us right, I suppose, for being so bloody pragmatic. A bit of loyalty might have saved a world of aggravation. That Fasik chap must've been a right bastard, too. From what I gather, when he took over the area, he nearly had a revolt on his hands. Nassar, the current sheik's father, had been in power for over thirty-five years -- and his father before him for even longer. They must've been doing something right."
"And the new sheik?" Doyle inquired, attention only half on the conversation, still filling out a form in triplicate for the Home Office.
"Hard to say. He's been in charge for two or three years now, and from what I can tell he's been doing a bang-up job of it. No petty raids; he stays in his own territory and makes very certain the other tribes do the same; trades fair; and the people in his sphere of influence seem to adore him. He's very young though -- early twenties at most, but he's a shrewd customer just the same. If rumors have it right, however, if England could be blown to bits, he'd volunteer to light the bloody fuse. Pity, really. His father was very pro-British and understood that if Britain loses its foothold, other countries might not be so respectful of their autonomy." He shrugged. "Then again, I understand Nassar was educated in England. Makes a difference, I suppose."
Doyle put down his pen and looked up. "So he refuses to sign the treaty because we didn't support his father in some tribal war?"
"In not so very polite terms. Resentment for how we switched sides after his father's death, I imagine. Although I admit he was at least prepared to listen to the proposal. He was here a couple of weeks ago and actually stooped to meet with Sir Melvin. I gather they didn't get on at all."
"That's hardly surprising," Doyle commented drily.
"Still, it doesn't make things easy. We've got about three months before the present treaty expires. Questions are going to be raised and England had better come up with suitable answers."
Two days later they were summoned to Sir Melvin's office concerning the same subject.
"This matter must be addressed," Sir Melvin announced, ponderously pacing up and down the length of the room.
"Yes, sir," Hart replied. "But if the Sheik won't listen to reason--"
"He doesn't know the meaning of the word!" Sir Melvin cut in furiously. "Came barging into my office as if he owned the bloody country."
Zachery exchanged an amused glance with Doyle behind the blustering man's back. "Well, he does appear to own a good portion of it, sir."
Sir Melvin spun around. "What's that, Hart?"
"Uh.... nothing important, sir. Have you any idea of a way to change the Sheik's position on the matter? The time is getting a bit short."
"I wouldn't even stoop to try," Sir Melvin growled. "The man is little better than a mongrel; an arrogant, ungrateful cur. I prefer to have him muzzled so he can't do more damage."
"From what I understand of the Sheik, that might not be very easy," Zachery pointed out.
Sir Melvin gave a crafty smile. "Not necessarily. We can't do anything openly, of course, but a messenger arrived today from Ali Fasik."
"The deposed sheik? But I thought his band was wiped out?"
"He is attempting to regroup his forces for another go. He wants our assistance. Under the circumstances, we are pleased to give it. He will be quite happy to sign the treaty when he has regained control."
Doyle spoke up for the first time, "But we are supposed to be uninvolved in local disputes -- neutral."
Sir Melvin glared at him. He still didn't care for the little bugger and would like nothing better than to send him packing, but so far Doyle had done nothing to warrant the chance of upsetting the Doyle clan, who were large, wealthy and influential. "Naturally, we will have to be discreet in this matter. But we can furnish Fasik with funds to buy arms and trust he will take advantage of the charity."
Hart shifted uncomfortably. "That doesn't seem precisely cricket, sir. After all--"
"Nonsense," Sir Melvin blasted. "That Bodie rascal had his chance to be sensible. I only regret I won't be there to see that young troublemaker get his comeuppance. Impudent bastard! In any case, I'm giving you the task of delivering the money to Fasik's camp. He doesn't dare come anywhere near Aden -- not with that mad bugger controlling all the passes through the mountains. And I certainly can't trust that kind of money with some wog. No, there's no help for it; you'll have to transport it in person, Hart. Fasik's messenger left directly after completing his mission -- afraid of being caught, no doubt. So I'll have to engage another guide to take you to Fasik's camp. The arrangements should be completed by tomorrow morning. You can leave then."
Zachery was delighted with the turn of events, already forgetting his disapproval of the plan to assist Fasik. He had longed to travel into the desert and this was a perfect opportunity.
Doyle was a bit more apprehensive about the entire scheme, sensing it wouldn't be quite as simple as Sir Melvin presented it.
"But if the Sheik's men are watching the passes, won't they stop him?"
"They wouldn't dare to detain a British citizen!" Sir Melvin snorted.
Doyle wasn't so sure about that, particularly if Adu Bodie despised the British as much as they were led to believe. "I don't think this is a very good idea, sir."
"Did I express an interest in your opinion, Doyle? It has nothing to do with you. Hart will do as he is instructed and try not to muck up the job."
Doyle cocked an eyebrow at his friend, but Zachery was already lost in the idyllic romance of a desert excursion.
Raymond admired and loved Zachery Hart more than anyone he had ever known. Zachery was undoubtedly intelligent, fearless, warm and compassionate. But he was also undeniably the only person Doyle could envision being even more naive and impractical than himself. The mere thought of Zack set loose alone on an unsuspecting desert with his trusting nature -- not to mention his dangerous command of Arabic -- made Doyle weak in the knees. While not at all confident that he could do bugger-all to improve matters, it was totally impossible for him to stand back and wave a cheery goodbye while his friend trotted off to disaster. If disaster was inevitable, he would prefer to face it beside his friend.
Doyle sighed, feeling like a parent dragged along on an ill-judged school expedition with heavy weather looming. "Sir, I insist on accompanying Mr. Hart."
Riding a camel tended to make Doyle a bit seasick, but in the best stoic British tradition he managed to ignore the discomfort. The beasts were bad tempered, disgusting and altogether distasteful. In Doyle's opinion it was a pity that two of them actually made it on the bloody ark.
Zachery was naturally in seventh heaven, shouting tidbits of information across to Doyle as they lumbered through the mountain pass and entered the great desert.
"People have the mistaken idea the desert is barren. Ridiculous! The place is positively teeming with life!"
Doyle eyed the stark sand and rocks doubtfully. "Oh yes?"
"Of course. One simply needs to know where to look."
"Absolutely," Zachery enthused. "Just look around, mate. Ruddy marvelous, isn't it?"
Sightseeing was a trifle difficult while trying to keep down one's breakfast, but Doyle nodded and offered a weak smile. "Marvelous. How long until we reach Fasik's camp?"
The guide, riding slightly ahead, had apparently been eavesdropping on the conversation. "Three days.... perhaps four."
Doyle's thanks were tinged with reserve. He found he liked and trusted their surly guide only slightly less than the camels.
"Zack," he began uncertainly, "I have my doubts about the purpose of this journey. It seems a bit....unjust. Lending aid to one side over another is interference of the most blatant sort. I thought we were...." He trailed off. "It just doesn't seem right somehow."
Hart shrugged uneasily. "Without a valid treaty the British will have no rightful influence in this sector of the world. That can't be good, can it?"
Having been born and bred to think it must be a natural law, Doyle had no trouble agreeing with the premise. "No, of course not. But--"
"If the Sheik refuses to sign, it puts us in a very difficult situation."
"But isn't that the point?" Doyle queried. "We are here on the sufferance of the inhabitants, yes? I mean, of course we should be here, and of course it's for their best interests... but if they don't like it..." He trailed off looked confused. "Don't they perhaps have the right to express that opinion?"
"Politics are a complicated issue, Raymond. It's not for you or I to say what is proper. We don't understand the big picture, do we?"
Doyle frowned. "But this isn't the big picture....this is what's happening right here in this area. It's about the people who have to live here, isn't it?"
"That's not for us to judge," Zachery sputtered, uncomfortable.
"Isn't it?" Doyle mused drily. "I rather thought it must be. The people in London can't know what's going on here."
Zachery scowled at him. "You know the small degree of respect I hold for Sir Melvin, but something of this magnitude surely must have the agreement of the Crown. And neither you nor I can question that authority, can we?"
Doyle hesitated, still holding doubts as to the origin of this half-baked scheme. Whatever Zachery chose to believe, Doyle wasn't so sure it had the backing of Whitehall. Still, Zachery had been in the diplomatic service much longer and no doubt knew better than he.
"I suppose you're right," Doyle conceded reluctantly, "I reckon this Sheik Bodie isn't concerned with his people's welfare if he's risking the loss of British support. If the French or Dutch or even the Americans come into this area, they might not give a fig for treaties."
It was Zachery's turn to look uncertain. "He doesn't care for the British right enough, but I don't think it was only that which prevented him from signing. If truth be told, part of what put this young sheik off was Sir Melvin trying to bribe him into signing the treaty. Not a very smart move."
Doyle turned, appalled. "You're jesting surely?"
"I wish I was. But you know Sir Melvin and his opinion of `wogs'. How he was ever appointed to the position of diplomat, I'll never know."
Doyle winced. "Maybe the French would be better at that."
Zachery chuckled. "You should've seen it. I thought for a minute the Sheik was going to go for the old geezer's throat. I'm not sure why he didn't -- except it probably gave him more satisfaction to spit in his face."
"Oh, yes," Zachery answered, not without a degree of approval. While he professed to understand Sir Melvin, he had suffered his tongue lashings and witnessed his unjust and pompous prejudice too long to avoid a bit of vicarious appreciation in his comeuppance. To his credit, he had not spoken a word about it to Doyle until now when it had a direct influence on their present situation. Doyle wasn't so sure he could have resisted the opportunity to gloat about their superior's humiliation. But Zachery had a much more forgiving temperament. Even now, Hart's comments were mild and judicial.
"Can't say I blame the Sheik, all things considered. It was a dreadful insult." He looked thoughtful and a bit troubled. "Surely that wouldn't have anything to do with our supporting Fasik? I mean, something of this nature must have sanction of a higher authority, don't you think?"
Ray didn't answer. He'd had doubts about that from the beginning, and if Zachery hadn't been so engrossed in the romance of a trek through his beloved desert, he would have had suspicions as well. At this juncture it seemed pointless to worry about it.
Zachery must have thought the same, for he dismissed the subject abruptly, returning to the obstinate sheik. "He was a handsome devil, Sheik Adu Bodie. But there was the oddest thing about him."
Doyle's nausea had eased and the rocking motion of the camel along with the heat was making him drowsy. "Hmmm? What's that?"
"He's the first Arab I've seen with blue eyes."
Doyle's eyes snapped open and his head jerked around. "What? What did you say?"
"That sheik chap, Adu Bodie. He had the bluest eyes I've ever seen. Didn't look Arab at all -- except for his manner of dress, of course." Noticing Doyle's slightly stunned expression, he added curiously, "What is it? What's wrong?"
Doyle just shook his head. "Nothing, really. I just.... No, I'm sure it's nothing at all.
It happened very suddenly, as such things always do. They topped a crest of sand only to find a line of wicked looking horsemen awaiting them at the bottom of the rise.
"Who are they?" Zachery questioned their guide, who sat wide-eyed and frozen on his camel.
"Unfriendly," Doyle suggested drily, noting the drawn guns and the fierce expressions.
The guide broke away suddenly, urging his camel down the slope, shouting excitedly in Arabic.
"Damn and blast the filthy devil!" Zachery swore, totally at odds with his usually calm manner.
"What's he saying?"
"He's telling the rascals all he bloody knows, that's what! About Fasik, about the gold -- everything!"
Doyle took a deep breath. "So much for secret transactions. What do we do now?"
"I think our options are rather limited. Not much point in making a run for it. We'll have to think of something."
"Well, think fast. They're coming."
There were at least twenty wicked-looking horsemen, all armed to the teeth, seated on fast and spirited horses. The Arabs milled around the small caravan, curiously silent, while the Englishmen's former guide chattered nervously to a man who clearly led the band.
The leader, a heavyset man in his late thirties, signalled to the others and they jumped from their saddles and began pulling the supplies from the pack camels. Obviously they were searching for the gold which was in the lockbox in Zachery's pack.
The two Englishmen exchanged glances. Neither of them was armed, nor would have stood a chance if they had been. Still, Zachery's chin went up stubbornly as he and Doyle dismounted.
Hart called in Arabic, catching the leader's attention, "Are you the Sheik?"
"You speak our tongue, English dog?" the leader spat out, his English roughly accented but intelligible. He grinned nastily, revealing unattractive and blackened teeth.
Zachery looked relieved. "And you understand English. That should make the situation easier." This was one time when even Zachery wasn't sanguine about trusting his shaky Arabic.
The Arab stoked his beard as he eyed the two men. "I understand the snake when he hisses; understanding the English is no different." He laughed heartily, appreciating his own wit, then translated for his men, who also found the remark excessively amusing.
Neither Doyle nor Hart were quite up to enjoying the joke.
Their guide began speaking again in rapid-fire Arabic, the tone increasingly whining and nervous. The bearded Arab's expression was one of distaste mixed with boredom as he whipped up the pistol from his gunbelt and calmly shot the guide through the heart.
Hart and Doyle were frozen in their tracks, shocked and appalled by the cold-blooded action.
"You killed him!" Doyle said, furious and sickened. "Christ, you didn't even give the poor bastard a chance--"
"He annoyed me," the Arab answered absently, turning his attention to Doyle as if noticing him for the first time. He looked him up and down, lips curving into a lascivious grin. "It is said the devil has green eyes. All English are devils, but you are doubly cursed." He reached out to touch Doyle's face, but the younger man backed away fast and Zachery stepped between them.
"Listen, we are British citizens and demand you let us go about our business. You've already murdered our guide--"
"He was betraying you. You would have killed him yourself... if you are any kind of man at all."
"I wouldn't have shot him down like that," Hart objected, then added with his typical wry honesty, "I can't say I'm particularly upset about it, now that you mention it, but there are other ways to--"
The Arab made a rude noise. "He was a renegade; a traitor to his people and even to you. Enough chatter about such a dog. He said you have gold -- gold you were to take to Fasik. Where is this gold?"
Zachery pressed his lips together obstinately, unwilling to give them anything. Doyle stood back and watched; his uneasy suspicion about this whole affair growing by the minute.
"You will not cooperate? Very well." The Arab motioned to one of his followers, who approached the pack on Hart's camel. Zachery leaped forward.
"No, you've no right--"
A gunshot blasted again and Zachery cried out, falling in a heap in the sand. Doyle ran to him.
"Zack! God, no!"
Zachery attempted to sit up, clutching his shoulder to staunch the flow of crimson, teeth clenched against the flare of agony.
They had found the lockbox now and brought it to the leader. Despite his injury, Zachery tried to protest again, but Doyle held him still.
"Forget it, Zack. Let them have it. It doesn't matter." He had the sick feeling that it never had; that they had been set up from the first. How or why, he wasn't sure.
The pistol came in useful once again as it blasted off the lock.
"What joke is this?"
Doyle looked up from trying to stop the bleeding with his kerchief. The lockbox held only a brick and some loose gravel.
The Arab kicked it to one side and came to stand over the Englishmen. "So where have you hidden it? Did you see our approach and bury it in the rocks, hoping to sneak back to it later?"
Zachery's face was ashen from loss of blood, and now his eyes were wide in surprise. "I...Ray, what could have--"
"Tell me, English dogs! Or I will shoot you now!"
Furious, Doyle snarled up at him, "Go ahead then, dammit! We can't tell you anything." The green eyes blazed. "I wouldn't if I could, you bloodthirsty bastard!"
"The guide..." Zachery trailed off, coughing a little. "Last night...while we were asleep...he must've..."
Doyle had a different theory, but he kept still. He had no proof, and it hardly mattered now in any case. "Zack--!" But Hart had already passed out, either from loss of blood or pain.
The Arab considered them thoughtfully. "So your story is that you were robbed." He stuck his pistol back in his belt. "No matter." He was regarding Doyle, a strange light in his black eyes. "You show fire, Green Eyes. I like that." He grabbed Doyle's arm and yanked him to his feet. He jerked off the spectacles and tossed them away impatiently. "Yes, very pretty behind the wire and glass."
He spoke a quick sentence in Arabic and his men laughed uproariously. Doyle stiffened and tried to pull away, but the man's grip was like a vise. "They say the English are good for only two things, Green Eyes. Betraying their allies...and being buggered."
Doyle's eyes widened and a jolt of terror raced through him. He wasn't so naive that he didn't understand what the Arab was about, or even doubt that he would do it. The expression in the obsidian eyes was hungry and merciless. The rest of the men circled around, laughing and nudging each other eagerly.
Doyle managed to jerk loose from the hold, but found he had no where to run, surrounded by the ever-closing ring of men.
"Now just a minute," he stalled. "You can't do this. I'm a British citizen--"
The leader laughed and translated to his men, who found this even more amusing. "You English, somehow you feel that phrase is magic; a shield that makes you immune. Foolish, Green Eyes. To some of us, it is...how would you English say it?...yes, it is like a red cloth to a bull."
Still trying to buy time to think of a way out of this mess, Doyle chattered, "Actually, I'm Irish on my mother's side... Great storytellers, the Irish. You Arab blokes fancy stories, yes? Scheherazade and all that?"
"What nonsense do you babble?" The Arab growled impatiently.
"Oh, y'know... A Thousand and One Arabian Nights an' all--" As quick as a flash, Doyle stooped down and tossed a handful of sand in the leader's face, grabbing the pistol from his belt as the grit found target in the Arab's open eyes. Dodging under the belly of the camel, Doyle sprinted to where the horses were standing. They spooked as he approached, but he managed to snare the reins of one. Shots fired off before he could mount, spitting up sand near his boots, so he spun around, aiming the stolen pistol straight at the leader who was bellowing orders and curses in Arabic.
"Go ahead," Doyle told them coldly. "But he'll die, too. Believe that, you bastards!" To his amazement, his hand wasn't even shaking, and he meant every word. For the first time in his life, he was ready to kill.
Whether the men understood the actual words, they didn't mistake his intention. Although they didn't lower their rifles, they remained still, just waiting. Stand-off.
But unfortunately not a stalemate. Zachery was still lying helpless on the sand, and Doyle knew he couldn't leave him there no matter what else was at stake. The leader was recovering now, although his eyes were still watering as he approached Doyle's position.
"You surprise me, Green Eyes. But this changes nothing. The weapon you took is empty. Pull the trigger and see."
Doyle swallowed, knowing it must be true. The Arab didn't hesitate in his approach and there wasn't even a gleam of fear in the black eyes. Despair engulfed him and the gun wavered.
"It is wicked to tell lies, my Uncle." The quiet voice came from behind Doyle, but he resisted the natural urge to spin around. Ah, but he knew that voice, and some secret part of him was more afraid of that than the danger in front of him.
"The weapon has been discharged only three times that I have counted. Chances are there are still two or three rounds left. Despite evidence to the contrary, my revered Uncle does not normally waste ammunition."
A white stallion trotted into Doyle's peripheral field of vision, but he kept his eyes and his gun trained where they were. The black gaze moved from Doyle to the figure on the horse, the expression no more than irritated.
He snarled something in Arabic, and the horseman chuckled. "Uncle," he replied in English, "if you and twenty of my best men cannot capture one small Englishman, I am totally out of patience with you. You deserve to be shot."
Leaping lightly from the saddle, he came to stand directly in front of Doyle, who was forced to look into the blue eyes he remembered all too well.
"Still," Bodie suggested softly, "if you must shoot someone, I would prefer you shoot me, English. I am quite fond of my uncle, despite his obvious shortcomings."
"It is you," Doyle said lamely. "I thought it must be."
Bodie took the gun from Doyle's lax hand and stuck it in his own belt. "I wish I could believe you came on this journey to seek me out, but I rather doubt that is the case."
"You're the Sheik." Their gaze held, and Doyle found it as difficult to break the contact now as he had that evening in the square. "You never told me your name."
The blue eyes sparkled with amusement. "How rude of me. Sheik Adu Bodie al Nassar bin Jafarr, at your service." He made the heart-to-head gesture with mocking precision. "Now, perhaps you had better tell me why you are here and what this little drama is about."
"They... he murdered our guide...and shot Zack..." Doyle bit his lip worriedly, furious with himself for forgetting his friend even for an instant. He pushed Bodie to one side and ran back to Hart. The men aimed their rifles, but at an abrupt gesture from the Sheik lowered them again.
"Hassid, what goes on here?" Bodie demanded tersely. Quickly, in Arabic, his uncle explained the situation. Bodie nodded and gestured toward the bodies on the sand, beside one of which Doyle was kneeling. "Are they dead?"
Hassid shrugged. "The traitor, yes. The infidel has a bullet in the shoulder. I thought he would speak of the gold quicker with pain as a goad, but I think he knows nothing. I say we kill them both now. They are in league with Fasik, there is no doubt of that. Of course, the little one could be good for a few hours of--"
Bodie silenced him with a look. "We will not kill them. And I do not approve of your kind of sport, Uncle."
"But why? They are infidel dogs! Since when has your heart bled for the English?"
Bodie's laugh was bitter. "You, of all people know better than that, my Uncle. But they may be worth a ransom."
Hassid snorted. "If this were true, they would not be sent like this, without escort. And if they truly let the renegade steal the gold, they are worth nothing to us."
"You think not? That, in itself, is interesting. Would you send a shipment of gold with two lambs such as these? Even for a secret trade?"
"The British are fools," Hassid spat.
"True, but not quite so foolish as that I think. There is more to this."
Hassid looked up, eyes narrowing. "A trick? To confuse us while the real payment to Fasik travels a different route?"
"It is a possibility," the Sheik observed drily.
For a second Hassid looked confused and more than a little disgusted. "They would sacrifice two of their own people for a ruse? A poor one, at that? They must know we have all the routes covered."
Bodie walked toward Doyle, his smile cynical and blackly cold. "As you say, they are English. Honor and loyalty is foreign to their nature."
"And I still say we kill them, sheep or no," Hassid muttered as he followed the Sheik.
Bodie knelt beside Doyle and efficiently inspected Hart's injury. He removed his headdress, revealing close cropped jet black hair, using it to pad the wound, tearing strips of cloth to bind it tightly in place. "It does not appear too serious. The bleeding has nearly stopped. The bullet must be removed, of course, but not here. Cambridge can do this much better."
"Cambridge?" Doyle inquired shakily.
Bodie ignored the question to give rapid instructions to his men. Then he stood, his eye catching a glint of sunlight off an arc of gold. Bending, he picked up the discarded spectacles and absently secured them inside his tunic. He drew Doyle to his feet with a grip on his elbow. "You will ride with me."
"Where? What about Zack?"
"I have instructed them to return him to our camp -- very carefully. They will see to him, do not be concerned. They have their orders."
Doyle stared at him, wondering at how a mere touch on his arm could cause him to react so strongly. His heart seemed to be pounding wilder than it had when he was facing Bodie's men. "And are your orders always obeyed?" he asked.
The beautiful mouth curved into the familiar, arrogant smile. "To the letter, English."
"I want to stay with Zack."
"No. They will go slowly to prevent the wound from bleeding more. We can travel more swiftly and prepare Cambridge for their arrival. Come."
Bodie whistled through his teeth, and the white stallion appeared, tossing his head and dancing.
"Shhh, Shaizar, be still." He caught the horse's bit and it stood like marble, with only the muscles rippling under the white coat to show its repressed energy. "You remember the English, yes?" He stroked the stallion's nose lovingly, then said to Doyle. "Get on."
Doyle looked back to where the men were fixing a litter to carry Zachery, then, seeing little alternative, reluctantly mounted the horse. To his surprise, Bodie swung up behind him on the saddle and urged the animal into a gallop; his arm snaked around Doyle's chest, holding him close.
Doyle sat stiffly, unwilling to lean back and relax against the broad chest. "How far to your camp?" he asked, the words whipped away by the wind.
Bodie heard him anyway, but leaned forward to speak into the other man's ear, breath warm against his skin.
"Not far. An hour's ride on Shaizar."
"When will they get Zack to camp?"
"Two hours perhaps."
Again the tickling breath stirred a prickle up Doyle's spine at the intimate feel. He decided to hold his questions; the answers were increasing his heart-rate. The arm banding his waist didn't improve the situation.
He told himself it was delayed reaction. So much had happened so quickly -- the guide murdered before his eyes, Zachery shot, the Arabs closing in on him ...
Doyle straightened, pulling as far from the figure at his back as he could. It wasn't far enough; the muscled thighs still nestled against his own, rubbing rhythmically with the smooth gait of the horse.
The sun was beginning to set now; light streaming at an odd angle through the mountains to the west, causing the sand to shift with shadows and colors of gold and red all around them. The wind cooled as the shadows lengthened and the night breeze was born. It fanned Doyle's burning cheeks, but did nothing to help his fevered mind, churning with doubts and strange feelings.
Bodie slowed the stallion suddenly, doing little more than tightening his knees and calling something softly in Arabic. The stallion tossed its head almost in denial and Bodie laughed softly. Doyle felt the deep chuckle in his bones -- the rumble of it in the wide chest plastered against his back. It was like the purr of a giant cat, sleek and satisfied.
"He is telling us he is not tired. He is too proud to admit that carrying two is more difficult than one -- even when one of them is as small as you, English."
Irritated, Doyle tried to pull even farther away, but Bodie's arm tugged him irresistibly back. "Be still, English. You will have us both off."
Doyle said nothing, afraid it would encourage the man to talk more, and the words were being poured in his ear like wild honey, the voice deep and melodious, the breath warm and darkly exciting.
"You are trembling," the Sheik remarked curiously. "Why?"
"I don't know," Doyle replied with pure truth.
Bodie's arm shifted slightly until his hand spread over the other man's stomach, cupping it, then sliding up over his chest in a smooth caress. "You trembled like this before...when I touched you. You cannot have forgotten. I have not."
Doyle squirmed uneasily. "Don't."
Lips nuzzled Doyle's throat just under the fall of curls. "Don't?" He mocked, gently teasing. He chuckled and once again the rumble ran through Doyle in sweet vibrations. "I did not wish to leave you that night. I wanted to return to you, but there were matters I had to attend to." His hand worked its way inside Doyle's loose shirt, easing open the buttons until skin touched skin. Doyle shivered.
"I had not forgotten you." Bodie whispered, moving up the throat to lick at the ear, teeth closing gently on the earlobe, making the other man jump -- but not in pain. "I would have sought you out again, you see. But for once fate has been kind and saved me the effort."
The searching fingers found Doyle's nipple and he gasped at the contact as if caught in a current of lightning.
"You like that, do you? When I touch you there? I remember how you reacted before. So eager...starving..."
Doyle could feel Bodie's smile against his cheek before Bodie turned his head with his free hand and brought his mouth down.
For an endless, drifting time Doyle knew nothing except the heat of the invading mouth, the bittersweet taste of turkish tobacco on the tongue that explored his, and the tingling delight of the hand that caressed his flesh under his shirt. His blood was pounding wildly through his veins, cock pulsing an echo in his trousers, feeling Bodie hard against him where they pressed together in the saddle. All he knew was that he was returning that kiss because there seemed nothing in the universe that could prevent it. Bodie's heat had caught him up and scorched him, melting him down so he wanted nothing more than to live with that mouth and that touch on him...and more...
When the Sheik finally released him, Doyle saw stars. It took a few seconds for him to realize they were real -- that the sun had set during those few blinded moments and the lights in the blue-black sky were more than the sparks that danced between them.
Bodie's mouth was on his cheek now, sliding back down to his throat, and he could feel that the other man's heartbeat was racing as madly as his own.
"Ah...it is still there," Bodie purred. "The fire..."
The horse shook his head, jingling the bits of silver on the bridle like bells and prancing nervously, sensing the odd excitement of its riders and not liking it.
Bodie absently calmed Shaizar and reached again to kiss Doyle.
It should have been an uncomfortable position, but it wasn't. Doyle's head tilted back to meet the lowered mouth; their bodies plastered front to back, thighs rubbing with the uneasy movement of the animal, Bodie's groin pressed tightly against the smaller man's rump. In fact, the precarious position seemed to increase the allure, making every movement careful and balanced; Bodie's hands steadying both the stallion and Doyle, whose lust was rising as quickly as Bodie's -- knowing he needed more and not being shy about asking for it, too lost in the fever to understand or care what was happening to him.
Delighted, Bodie whispered hoarsely. "I knew you would be like this, my English. When I first saw you... saw those green eyes--"
Green eyes, Doyle thought, stunned by the phrase, remembering that less than an hour ago he had nearly been raped. And now -- Christ, now he was jumping at it as if it was something he really wanted. What the devil was happening to him?
He pushed Bodie away roughly. "Stop it...just stop it!"
"What is wrong?" Bodie asked in surprise.
"I don't want to do this. You've...well, just stop it, that's all. I want to get to your camp. Zack will be there. I...I shouldn't have left him, dammit! He's hurt, don't you understand!"
Bodie's eyes narrowed in the starlight; the thin sliver of the moon showing his annoyed expression. "I told you it will take them longer to reach the camp. He will be cared for."
"I want to see for myself," Doyle snapped. He pried Bodie's hand away from his chest, furious and confused by what he'd been doing while Zachery lay hurt and helpless somewhere in the desert.
"You do not trust my word?" Bodie asked coolly.
"Why should I? It was your man that shot him!"
"From what I gather, it was your intention to give aid to my enemy. Is that not justification?"
"Nothing is justification for cold blooded murder," Doyle retaliated hotly. "Or for shooting an unarmed man!"
"You are not exactly in a position to judge," was the cold reply, then, after a second he added crossly, "Zack....always you talk of this Zachery! What is he to you? Your lover?"
Outraged, Doyle drew back his elbow and belted the other man in the ribs, hard enough to take away his wind. "He's my friend, you bloody idiot!"
Bodie recovered quickly and wrapped his arms around Doyle, pinning down the dangerous arms. "Why you little--!"
Doyle, temper snapping completely, fought like a wildcat, but was unable to loosen the iron muscles banding his chest and arms. Instead, he kicked out, digging his heels into the startled horse, who was already skittish at the unusual actions taking place on its back.
Shaizar reared up, twisting wildly, hoping to rid himself of the whole problem.
He did. Bodie, concentrating on his captive, had lost control of the horse and wasn't prepared for this. They both tumbled off, with Bodie still holding tight to the spitfire in his arms. They continued the battle on the sand, although both had the breath knocked out of them by the fall. The horse galloped away, kicking its heels in disgust, but returned a few minutes later, drawn by curiosity to the two men rolling and cursing on the ground.
Bodie, by virtue of sheer weight and superior muscles, finally managed to pin the smaller man. It wasn't as easy as he expected, however, because Doyle was absolutely raging and didn't seem to realize that he was physically inferior.
"Stop it!" Bodie blasted out, having forced Doyle onto his back and literally holding him down by laying on top of him. "Be quiet!"
This was greeted by another wave of curses and another surge of resistance. It died down slowly until there was only an occasional ripple of defiance.
"All right, what is this nonsense?"
Doyle glared up at him. "Let me go!"
"No. You are fortunate I do not break your silly English neck. One minute you are warm and yielding, and the next you are--"
"Let me up," Doyle repeated between clenched teeth. Bodie took a deep breath, forcing himself to remember that, as tempting as the idea was at the moment, strangling the mercurial little beast wouldn't get him what he wanted at all.
Before he released Doyle, however, he couldn't resist kissing him again. To his surprise, after a violent second of protest, Doyle melted to him once more. Groaning with relief at the reverse in mood, Bodie reached eagerly to remove the clothes between them.
That was his mistake.
Doyle, shocked back to himself by the action, rolled away and stood. He was breathing heavily, but his stance was wary.
Bodie, still seated, wrapped his arms around his knees and regarded him with a mixture of bafflement and annoyance.
"What is it now?"
"I told you, I want to see to Zack. Don't touch me," he warned as Bodie got to his feet.
Taking a deep breath in exasperation, Bodie whistled to Shaizar, who came to him immediately. He stroked the animal's neck for a moment, speaking softly to it in Arabic.
"You should not have kicked him," Bodie reproved. "He is not accustomed to such treatment."
Uncertainly, Doyle took a step forward. "I'm sorry."
Bodie shrugged. "Very well, get on."
Doyle took the same step back. "Oh, no. I'm not riding with you."
"You would rather go on foot?"
He chewed his lip indecisively, but nodded.
Bodie smiled, bemused. "It is a long walk, English."
Doyle just looked stubborn. He had had enough of being close to this man. It was dangerous to his common sense, not to mention his crumbling self-control. Although his body obviously knew what it wanted, his mind and emotions were in turmoil.
"As you wish." Bodie swung up on the horse and turned it in the direction of the camp, holding Shaizar to a walk so Doyle could keep pace.
They travelled in silence for a time, Doyle finding that walking in sand was not a lot of fun; bits kept slipping into his boots, until he felt he was carrying half the bloody desert `round his ankles. He watched the Sheik surreptitiously, the perfect profile outlined in the moonlight. Through his artist's eye he saw the man was quite beautiful, and he couldn't help reacting to that. But he had known other beautiful men and women in his life, and had never felt this strange, mysterious attraction before.
Curiosity finally drove him to ask, "Have you lived here...the desert...all your life?"
Bodie glanced down at him. "Yes. I was born here."
Doyle wanted very much to know how a blue-eyed, pale skinned man had been born sheik of an Arab tribe, but sensed this wasn't exactly the best time to ask personal questions. Instead, he returned to an earlier puzzle. "Who is Cambridge?"
"He was my tutor." Bodie replied shortly. "Now he is my friend."
"The name is British," Doyle ventured. "There's a university--"
"Yes, I know of it. He taught there for some years. Cambridge is not his true name. Even I do not know what that is. He has only ever been called Cambridge."
"So he's British?"
"Yes. He taught my father in England and then returned with him to Arabia. He has remained with us since."
Startled, Doyle stopped. "Your father attended Cambridge?"
Bodie halted the horse. "My father was educated in England and France. We are not all the savages you think us to be."
"I never thought that," Doyle protested.
While the other man's expression was impossible to read, his tone lightened. "Perhaps not. Listen, English, this is ridiculous. It will take us forever to reach the camp at this pace. Will you ride?"
Doyle could see the logic, but still hesitated. Bodie chuckled. "Oh, my timid English, must I swear to be a perfect gentleman? Very well. I promise not to touch you. Ride up behind me, if that will make it safer for you."
Feeling silly at his caution, Doyle agreed. He accepted the hand up and swung onto the saddle behind the Sheik. Bodie immediately increased the pace to a slow canter, and Doyle was forced to grab the other man's waist to hold his balance. When Bodie made no move toward him, Doyle relaxed a little, allowing himself to enjoy the feel of power beneath him and the cool air on his face.
And the desert was exquisite at night; all starlight and silver-grey sand, the moon a brilliant crescent hanging above the horizon, spreading its pale shadows across the stark landscape.
The silent splendor tugged at his heart like a siren's song. "It's beautiful," he whispered, more to himself than to the man in front of him.
Bodie heard him. "Yes."
"But lonely," Doyle added impulsively. "So very lonely."
There was a long pause before Bodie answered, his voice strange, "Yes. Yes, it can be that as well."
For some reason, Doyle felt he had to explain that he hadn't intended the comment badly. "I was only thinking it reminded me of the moors of home. Endless and empty...yet so beautiful it can make your throat ache because...because you feel something must be there just beyond your sight...and maybe you can reach it if..."
Bodie's head lifted, listening with a sudden intentness that was almost tangible. "Go on," he encouraged. "Tell me."
A little embarrassed by his poetic outpouring, Doyle shrugged. "Nothing really. It's just...I used to ride out on the moors for hours and hours. Searching for something...riding faster and faster...as if..." He trailed off and laughed awkwardly. "Silly really. I probably wouldn't have known what it was if I found it."
Bodie didn't answer, but there was a sudden silent communication between them; an understanding they shared without knowing exactly what it was or why.
Impulsively, without even thinking, Doyle laid his cheek against the other man's back and held to him tightly. Fleetingly, Bodie's hand touched his, then abruptly he stiffened, shrugging him off.
"We will be at camp soon," he said brusquely.
Puzzled, Doyle sat up. For a second he had felt a closeness to this man he had never experienced with anyone. But Bodie obviously hadn't wanted it -- any more than anyone else had. Whatever he desired from Doyle physically, he was making it clear that was the extent of it. Doyle knew better than to be surprised, let alone hurt. It was just one more kick in the teeth that he'd been too blind to dodge.
The rest of the journey was completed in chilled silence. In fifteen minutes they came upon an oasis where the camp was located. It was very large, spread out among the palm trees. Doyle could hear the bleating of goats and the cheerful shouts of children as they splashed in the walled pool.
Their arrival drew an interested crowd, and Bodie spoke to them shortly before they dismounted Shaizar. The people regarded Doyle with various degrees of curiosity and/or contempt before Bodie led the way to a good-sized tent on the outskirts of the oasis.
The inner room was empty; the tent sectioned into separate areas. It was pleasantly furnished with light tables and cushioned sofas that could easily be taken apart for transport. The rugs and hangings were rich and colorful.
"Cambridge," Bodie called cheerfully. "Where are you?"
A curtain moved and an older man appeared, probably in his late fifties or early sixties. He was dressed in loose white trousers and flowing robe, similar but in contrast to the black ones the Sheik wore, but he wore no burnoose and possessed a neatly trimmed greying beard. His eyes were also grey, and keenly intelligent. The smile for Bodie was wide and affectionate.
"I have a task for you, Cambridge," Bodie announced airily. "There is a man with a bullet in him that needs your light touch."
"Indeed? How distressing." He looked at Doyle, eyes twinkling with kind humor. "You look far too healthy, young man, to be carrying around a bullet."
"No, it's my frien--"
"This is Doyle," Bodie cut in easily. "Raymond Doyle. You will like him. He is an artist."
Doyle glanced at Bodie, startled.
"An artist?" Cambridge's eyebrow shot up. "Interesting."
Doyle blushed. "Not really. I'm a...clerk." He licked his lips uncertainly. "Listen, Mr. Cambridge--"
"Just Cambridge. Mister is an abbreviation for `master', and I am old enough to realize no man is really master of anything."
"Uh...are you a doctor?"
"But my friend is hurt and he needs--"
"I see, then it is your friend with the bullet. No young man, I hate to disappoint you, but I am not a physician. I am, however, the closest man in the area who doesn't believe you can cure warts by steeping them in camel dung and palm leaves."
Bodie laughed. "Do not be so modest, Cambridge." Then to Doyle. "He is quite skilled, actually. He has picked bullets out of me before -- not to mention other things."
Suddenly serious, Cambridge addressed Bodie. "How bad is it?"
"Shoulder wound. Hassid is bringing him in. They should arrive soon."
Seeing Doyle's worried expression, Cambridge patted his arm comfortingly. "He's right, my boy. I have done my share of patching work. I'm sure your friend will be fine."
"He's lost a good deal of blood," Doyle said, only a little reassured.
Cambridge glanced at Bodie who nodded.
"Well, I promise you, we'll do the best we can. What happened?"
Doyle's face darkened, remembering the scene all too clearly now.
Bodie spoke before Doyle could. "Hassid," he answered shortly.
Cambridge just sighed, understanding perfectly. "I see. Well, I'll gather my medical supplies and get everything prepared." He turned to Doyle. "I'll need someone to assist -- unless you faint at the sight of blood?"
"He does not," Bodie put in with quiet certainty.
Again, Doyle looked at him in surprise. Bodie seemed very sure of a lot of things about him. "No," he answered faintly. "I want to help."
...Continued in Chapter 9...