Sahara Desert, El Golea, August, 1818
Fear drained away as he watched her from underneath his lashes. One long, gold-painted nail beckoned to him. She lay draped across the chaise. The blood-red silks that hung from her shoulders were fastened only with a girdle of twined gold at her waist. Outside, the wind began to wail. Sand shushed against the walls of the tent. The scent of cinnamon and something else he could not name suffused the hot, dry air inside. In the dim light her skin glowed with perspiration and the very air vibrated with her vitality. Under the almost-transparent fabric her nipples were clearly visible. He did not want to respond to her. But his swelling need surged over him.
"Come," she said. He could lose himself in those black eyes, lined with kohl.
He staggered to his feet. His naked body was still damp from bathing in the muddy pool of the oasis. His shoulder bled, as well as his thigh. She would like that.
She pointed to a place at her side. He dropped to his knees again. He knew what she wanted, and suddenly he wanted to give it to her more than he had ever wanted anything in his life. He lifted his mouth as she bent her head. Her breasts hung forward, tantalizing. Her lips were soft against his. He kissed her hungrily. Some part of him knew his danger, but the throbbing in his loins cycled up until he was lost.
As she reached for him her eyes began to glow red, blood-red like her silks.
Whispering and low moaning woke him from the nightmare. His veins and arteries carried pain to every fiber of his body. The moaning was his own. The whispering was Arabic. "Do it now, holy one." He cracked one eye. Light stabbed him. A cluster of men in burnooses hovering over him. The open door silhouetted them in excruciating radiance. Light gleamed on a raised sword. He was too weak, too dispirited to resist death. He could only clench his eyes shut.
Chaos! Shouting! "What are you doing, man?" someone yelled. "Jenks! Kiley!"
He cowered away from the light, trembling.
"Let him finish it," an Arab hissed, in English now. "This one is bad. He has the scars."
"No one will be killed here. This soil is England," the Englishman roared.
Boot heels clattered. He chanced opening his eyelids a crack. The light was cut by a crowd of bodies in the door. They wore uniforms.
"Escort these men from the compound." The sword clattered to the ground. The Arabs were hustled out. The Englishman came to stand over him as the door swung mercifully shut. "Why do they bother" He'll die soon anyway."
"Pray to your God he does die, Excellency," the single remaining Arab whispered. The voices were growing indistinct. "And I will pray to Allah."
The room wavered. Death, he thought. Was that even possible for one such as he?
The Englishman reached forward. "What's this?"
The leather pouch at his neck jerked. The thong gave way. Darkness ate at the edges of his vision. He heard the gasp as they saw the contents of the pouch.
"Who are you, my friend?"
He could not answer. The darkness was winning. The room dimmed.
"Post a guard. Make sure he's English." He heard it from a distance.
Sahara Desert, Bi'er Taghieri, September, 1818
Elizabeth Rochewell gazed around the tiny room; whitewashed walls, a dark wood dresser carved in the native style she found clumsy and dear at once, the bed covered with her own counterpane. How many rooms in how many towns strewn across the Levant and North Africa just like this had she seen since she joined her father on his expeditions? Fifty? Blended together, they represented the only home she had known, the only place she felt comfortable.
She leaned over to draw the black lace mantilla off the bed by one corner. She had never thought to use this souvenir of Barcelona in such a manner. Indeed she had expected none of this. The pillar that had crumbled after forty-five hundred years, give or take, tore her father from her so suddenly, so unfairly, she was stunned. It could not be an act of God, for what God could be cruel enough to kill a man at forty-eight, still a very healthy specimen?
The spotted mirror above the dresser showed eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep as she placed the mantilla. That she couldn't help. She had not slept for more than a few minutes at a time since the awful event. She couldn't help the face, either. She got it from her Egyptian mother. Her wide-set eyes were neither gold nor green but something in between. Her mouth was too wide for beauty, and her complexion could only be considered brown. Her dark hair was braided and coiled around her head, the only way she could manage it without crimping irons to tame its curls. Even so, escaping feathers frothed about her face. Then there was her figure. She might be well formed enough, but she was short. There were just no two ways about it. Her father said her mother was the most beautiful woman he had ever met and that Beth looked very like her. He must have been blinded by love. She would never be attractive to anyone in England, or Africa. There she was too Egyptian, here she was too British.
At least she was useful. Beth had spent all her adult life helping her father catalogue the history of mankind in the physical traces of ancient times left behind. After a disastrous experience at Crofts School for girls, she had escaped to join her father. It was she who organized her father's expeditions, she who translated from the ancient texts the clues that guided them on their quest for the lost sister city of Petra. She studied the aging of stones to date their finds. She had found a place at her father's side. In Africa, people thought of her as some strange creature, not quite woman. She existed beyond conventions.
But that existence might have disappeared with her father's death. She pulled the mantilla over her braids. She did not own a black dress, but a round-necked gray cambric gown with a single black ribbon at the throat would do. She could hardly believe she was getting ready for her father's funeral. He may have been an unconventional parent, but he had loved her as much as she loved him. He was her best friend, her confidant, her professional mentor and the sole support of a life she loved. What would she do without him?
A bluff knock sounded downstairs. She heard the door open quietly on leather hinges, the small man who owned this apartment salute the guest.
"Monsieur L'Bareaux," she greeted him in the tiny parlor next to her sleeping quarters.
He was a large man, her father's partner on the last three expeditions. Monsieur L'Bareaux's mustache was black and expressive; his kindly eyes an indeterminate gray that could go hard when bargaining. That he was French might surprise, since France and England were incessantly at war. But out here, wars were subordinate to the lure of antiquities. It was the French who, initially armed with money from Napoleon, had swept across the Mediterranean looking for traces of human dynasties long dead. It was a Frenchman, Monsieur Broussard, who had discovered the city of Petra in Palestine six years ago.
M. L'Bareaux was more interested in salability than historical significance. But M. L'Bareaux's way coincided with her father's dream. As Edwin Rochewell and his daughter trekked about North Africa looking for the lost city of Kivala, they cataloged one wonderful repository of antiquities after another, leaving M. L'Bareaux plenty of opportunity to send back treasures to his dealers in Paris, and provide enough money to help fund the next expedition.
"Do you bear up, Mademoiselle Beth?" His grave gaze roved over her.
"Yes." Was that true? Beth had not yet been able to cry for her father. She could not yet even comprehend his death. Did that mean she was "bearing up?"
"That?s a good girl," M. L'Bareaux patted her shoulder. "You are tres fortissant."
"You really want to know whether I'm ready," Beth returned in the forthright way that disconcerted so many people in England. "I am."
M. L'Bareaux opened the door and she plodded down the stairs. She mustn't think about the fact that she was burying her father today. She must think how to get what she needed from Monsieur L'Bareaux. It was the only way to carry on her father's dream. It was the only way to preserve the only existence she knew.
The nightmares receded. He was awake, but he didn't open his eyes. Something had changed. The burning pain in his veins was gone. In fact, he felt...strong, stronger than he had ever been. Blood pulsed through his arteries. His heart thumped a rhythm in his chest. His senses assaulted him. Linen rasped over his bare skin from a light coverlet. The aroma of beef and onions cooking in olive oil was obvious, as was the jasmine. But dust, the faintest of scented oils, perhaps used long ago, and the smell of leather lurked just under the cooking. How could he smell those things? There was a joyful quality to the surging of his blood. He thrust it away. She told him she felt that way when she fed, just to torment him.
Despair fought with the joy thrumming inside him. He wasn't going to die. Now he might truly be damnedor worse, he might be Satan himself. Had he become like her?
A doctor. He needed an English doctor. A frightened Arab goatherd had said there were Englishmen at El Golea. Had he made it to his goal? He remembered English voices.
He opened his eyes. It was the room he remembered from his delirium. Slats of sunlight coming through the shutters burned him. He dragged himself from his bed, stumbling to the window. He held himself up by the sill and scraped his fist along the slats to shut them. The wood broke with a crack. Light stabbed through the shattered shutters. He cried out and groped for the curtains hanging to each side of the embrasure. The room was cast into dimness. Even in the darkness he could see every detail of cracked plaster, every dart of a cockroach. Slowly, he sank to the floor, his back pressed against the plaster. How had he broken those shutters?
Booted feet thudded outside. The wooden door set in a border of blue-figured tiles creaked open. He was grateful for the huge form that blocked most of the light. He shielded his eyes. "Light," he croaked in a voice he did not recognize. "No light."
"Sorry," the figure said in English with a soft reminder of Yorkshire at the edges. It was the voice from his fever. The door closed. "You must have had enough of sun."
Now that the room was dim, he could see the figure for what it was. The face was English through and through, with slightly protuberant pale blue eyes, a prominent nose and a chin that could have used a bit more strength. Still the man would be considered handsome. He wore the uniform of the Seventh Cavalry. How long since he had seen boots? The man had eaten eggs and dates and toast with orange marmalade for breakfast. Once he would never have known that. Now the fact that he could smell it frightened him. He could not let this Englishman know what he was, or the man would never help him to an English doctor.
"Yes," he croaked, because the man expected something. The pale blue eyes examined him. He looked down. He was naked. What did the officer stare at? The scars. Did they reveal him? The marks of the whip said he had been a slave. But the twin circles all over his body? He hoped to God no one knew what those meant. Of course, God had nothing to do with him now.
The officer leaned down and helped him to his bed. He collapsed against the slatted headboard. "Major Vernon Ware," the man said as he sat on the side of the bed. "Attached to the English legation at El Golea. We found you in the streets about a week ago. And you are?"
There might be a thousand answers to that, none of them good. But this Major wanted something simple...a name. "Ian George Angleston Rufford." He hadn't thought of himself by that name in more than two years.
?"Rufford?" The Major peered at him. "I knocked about London with Rufford Primus. You must be his younger brother." He held out a long-fingered hand.
Ian did not take it. He was not sure he dared. "Third son," he said. "My brother is Lord Stanbridge now." His brother a Viscount. It sounded so...normal. Even if you were poor, your estates encumbered and your wife a bore...it didn't matter. You knew who you were.
The Major's eyes lit with memory. "Your brother said you stripped to advantage at Jackson's. Won a pony on you."
Had he ever been the careless rake who boxed at Jackson's? That man was gone now.
"I'll have one of the lads bring you some broth," the major said. "You'll be back to beef and claret soon, but you'd better take it slow. We didn't think you were going to make it. You...you must have had a hard time of it."
Ian nodded. If he knew how hard, the Major would despise him. His feeling of euphoric strength faded. He was tired. But the goal that had burned in him as he dragged himself over uncounted miles of sand pushed him to speak. "I need an English doctor."
The Major stood, looming over him and pulled up the linen sheet. "No English doctor within six hundred miles of here. Rest now. We'll find you clothes. I kept your belongings."
Ian was puzzled. Belongings? Nothing had belonged to him for a long time.
"I threw the water skin away. Something had rotted inside it." Ian started. The water skin held damnation. "But the little pouch you had hanging around your neck is safe with me."
Ahhh. The diamonds. The diamonds were his way back to England. After a doctor cured him he would wager at White's and be fitted for a hat at Locke's and canter about Hyde Park at five of the clock like everyone else with nothing better to occupy them.
The room swam. The Major saw his weakness and withdrew. Ian did not have to be like her. And he would not submit himself to a woman again, ever. Someday the horror in the desert would be only an occasional nightmare. As his eyes closed, images of London filled him.
The patch of ragged grass was a tattered camouflage for the sand beneath. The hiss of sand being shoveled in on top of the coffin whispered that this was a foreign grave in a foreign place. With his dirty collar and slurring words, the priest was still the best the Christian god had in these climes. There was only a wooden cross to place at her father's grave. The stone would come in three weeks, if the stonemason did not get distracted by another job or go to stay with his cousins unexpectedly. That was the way of the world in these parts.
She turned away from the grave, still dry-eyed and empty, along with Monsieur L'Bareaux, several Arabs who had been with her father for years in one capacity or another, and the disheveled Italian who traded with them for supplies. It was a small enough group that dispersed into the rising heat of the late morning.
Monsieur handed her back up into the cart and sat heavily beside her. He snapped the reins over the donkey's back. They plodded toward the blockish outline of the village. The heat, settling over her mantilla and her cambric dress, was stifling.
She was alone in the world. Her father was gone. Her mother died giving her life. She was an only child, just as her mother wasunusual in her mother's native land. There was only her father's sister, Lady Rangle in London. Beth had met her only half a dozen times. She could not go back to England. She did not belong there. She belonged here, in Africa, carrying on her father's dream. M. L'Bareaux held the key, she knew. She had resolved only this morning to accost him, and yet now she could not speak.
It was Monsieur L'Bareaux who finally cleared his throat. "Mademoiselle Beth," he began, not looking at her. "It is perhaps time we talked of you."
She took a breath and recruited her resources. He had made the first sally. It was now or never. The only tactic likely to prevail was a hit direct. "I could not agree more, Monsieur. Once we have seen that Imam in Tunis, I will be able to map our course for Kivala."
M. L'Bareaux pulled at his collar. It wasn't because of the heat. "I signed the contract with Revelle, petite. He will pay well for excavating the ancient kasbah at Qued Zem."
"But we have caught the scent of the Lost City now, I know it!" Her voice rose with her anxiety. She couldn't lose M. L'Bareaux's support at the outset. "The old man's directions corroborate the text on that stylus outside Cairo, if one revises Robard's clumsy translation."
M. L'Bareaux glanced down at her. His bushy brows, now drawn together, had long since stopped seeming fierce. His sympathy made her shrivel. "I have not the doubts that you are right, petite. But the francs say I must excavate Qued Zem."
Beth stared straight ahead. She must not let the fear into her voice. "Well, if it must be Qued Zem, it must. We can be ready in a fortnight." Perhaps the bluff Frenchman would not hear that little quaver. If she had to make the final sacrifice, he could not know that she was afraid.
There was a long pause. She dared not look at him. Perhaps he would just acquiesce. Or maybe he was only thinking how to break the bad news.
"You cannot stay here, petite." He said it softly, but with finality. "It is not proper."
"Did my father care for propriety?" She shook her head. "If it comes to that, I took more care of him than he of me."
"Who will organize everything, and who will translate texts for you? You know you read the Coptic very badly and you have no hieroglyphs at all."
He rubbed his mustaches with one hand. "I have engaged a foreman. We shall do without a scholar. We are just digging trinkets, you know."
"But why must you do without? What has changed?"
"Before, you had him. Whether he was watchful or no, the men knew that you were to be treated with respect. It would be different now." She could see he was sorry to have to explain this to her. The donkey plodded on under the blue dome of sky toward the village wall. They joined the main road, clogged with the commerce of the desert. Men hunched under lumpy nets of cheese and baskets of dates. Women carried fowl in crates.
"Even if I engaged a chaperone?"
"What woman would trek across the desert for months at a time?" He shook his head.
"A Bedouin woman, or a Berber," she answered promptly.
"That would bring neither propriety nor protection."
"You could give me protection, M. L'Bareaux." Her voice was small but it was steady.
"Assez," he continued, "I have made the arrangements for you to have full escort on the next caravan to Tripoli. Lord Metherton, he knew your father. Already I have written that he should have a kindness for you, and see that you get back to England safely."
"What difference if I am alone on a caravan or on trek with you?" One last protest.
"You will go with an Arab family I know, as their daughter." He spoke slowly, as if she had suddenly become a child. "The caravan master will see that you are safe."
Well, she wasn't a child. She was a fully-grown woman who should be able to stay in Africa if she wished. Night sky and total quiet echoed in her memory. How could one not feel close to God in the desert? She could feel the Sphinx towering above her in the unforgiving sun as she ran her hands over the pitted stone of its paws and had a revelation about it. She had seen many things in the desert that could not be explained by the rational mind; the old woman who healed others? wounds before her very eyes, the amulet that burned when you liedshe had seen more than most women in England saw in a lifetime. How could she give up the freedom, the excitement, for English drawing rooms? And if she could not even stay in Africa, she would never see her father's dream realized. She let that thought give her courage.
"There is one answer to both our problems," she heard herself say. "You get someone to organize and translate, and I stay in North Africa."
He glanced at her with wariness in his eyes as a herd of goats flowed around their cart. "What are you saying, petite?" She could tell he did not really want to know.
"I'm asking you to marry me, M. L'Bareaux." She had known that it would come to this, a final sacrifice needed to do what she wished, be whom she wished.
The silence stretched. She must let him consider it. He couldn't be more than forty-two or forty-three. She was full twenty-four. Did he hesitate because he thought she would be demanding? "I shouldn't be a charge upon you," she blurted. "It would be a marriage of your convenience, sir, not mine. I could be as much or as little of a wife as you like." The arch of Bi'er Taghieri's west wall passed overhead. They plunged into the stifling village once more, its narrow streets constricting her hopes. M. L'Bareaux's Adam's apple trekked up and down.
Then his shoulders sagged. "Mademoiselle Beth, I have sense of the honor you do me." He did not use the familiar "ma petite." "But you would regret this thing and so would I."
"The difference in age cannot matter." She could not keep desperation out of her voice.
"No. But I do not look for a wife, even one so talented as you are." He cleared his throat. "I have no liking for...for the ladies."
Oh. Well, that made no difference. It simply meant the marriage would be truly only convenient. She was about to protest, but he held up a hand. "Call halt, Mademoiselle Beth." He patted her hand in a fatherly way. "It is for the best. You belong among your people." He went on with determined cheerfulness. "You have your father's share of the funerary pieces. They'll bring enough to get you home. He left your portion in Drummond's bank."
Beth stared ahead, not at the crowded narrow streets of Bi'er Taghieri, but at the prospect of long dreary years in drawing rooms, clapping politely when the young misses played on the pianoforte. Her sentence was handed down by the falling pillar in that wretched tomb. She was for Tripoli, and an England in which she could not possibly belong. Her father's dream was dead, just as he was. All that was left was to walk through her days, missing him and longing for piercing sunshine and black nights and the smell of jasmine in the morning air.
It was late in the English compound. Ian sat with Major Ware in the courtyard under a pergola covered with vines of star jasmine. The red ends of their cigarillos glowed in the dark. It had been almost a month since Ian first waked to new life. The fever was gone, but so were his illusions. He had been eating like the starved man he was, but no amount of beef and bread could satisfy his cravings. The despair of knowing exactly what his body wanted beat at him until he couldn't sleep in his darkened room during daylight hours. The hunger had been growing for weeks now, until tonight as he sat at dinner with the ambassador, Lord Wembertin, and his staff, Ian could hear the thrumming of blood in veins, the pump of hearts around him. He'd startled everyone by knocking over a chair in his haste to be gone. But he might have done something they'd find far more horrible if he'd stayed.
He couldn't go on like this. Even now he could feel the throb of Ware's blood in the man's throat. He could see it pulse, even in the dark. In the pocket of his coat he fingered the small knife they'd given him to pare his nails. The knife was his hope. He had a plan.
"You must have put on three stone, Rufford," Ware remarked in the darkness. "Lord, but you were a scarecrow when you first got here! How long had you been out there?"
Ian wanted no questions. "I'm not sure," he said in a damping tone.
"Well, perhaps not. That new coat fits snug enough, in spite of the foreign tailoring. Sorry none of us had one to accommodate those shoulders of yours."
"You have been very kind." And he had. Ware had seen to it that he was cared for until he was strong again. Only Ware's constant vigilance had kept the Arabs at bay. Ian had to keep the Major from knowing just how strong he was. His fellow Englishmen would be frightened if they guessed Ian's abilities. Ian was still guessing and they frightened him.
"Feeling fit enough to be off for England soon, I dare say. Catching a ship in Algiers?"
"I go through Tripoli." He kept his voice flat. "You said there is an English doctor there."
"Yes. But have you still a need of one?"
Ian changed the subject. "I was bound for Tripoli on the way out, you know."
"In the diplomatic service?" The major sat forward.
"Under Rockhampton." It was the first information he had volunteered.
"Capital fellow. I would love to serve under him." Ware's cheroot glowed brighter.
"At one point I thought it just the thing for me. Younger son, family estates mortgaged to the hilt, you know the way of it. I inherited the family instability." Ware would understand he meant gambling and horses and women. "Don't know how I made it through Cambridge. Ran through what my mother had provided for me raking about town." He gave a bitter laugh.
"Don't try to tip me the double, Rufford. Rockhampton only takes the best."
Ian felt the major's blood pumping in his arteries. He achieved a shrug. He must keep talking to stave off the pain crawling along his veins. "M'father's death stopped the rake's progress. Henry was pretty well brought to a stand when he inherited. Hadn't the sense to marry for money. I couldn't be a charge on him. He managed to buy Charlie a commission. I convinced Rockhampton I'd settled down. I write a fair hand and my dancing is well enough. All you need to succeed in the diplomatic corps."
Ware raised his brows. "Under Rockhampton? I hardly think..." But he apparently thought better of pressing Ian. After a moment he said, "But you never served."
"Barbary pirates off Algiers. Took the ship." Ian's voice was tight.
Ware nodded, his expression full of surmise. "How did you escape?"
"A story for another time." Ian's voice was harsher than he intended.
Ware stubbed out his cigar. "Well, money won't be a problem, not with the contents of that little leather bag. You need not serve Whitehall and the diplomats if you dislike it."
"No." He would know better what to do after he put the knife to use tonight.
"I'll leave you. It grows late. Or early. The night has become your time."
Ian's brows drew together. "Not by choice."
"Oh, you'll be riding to hounds with the Quorn before you know it. A touch of sun poisoning, that?s all.? Ware rose. "By the by, you'd best travel with a well-armed party. Nasty doings in the desert. A whole caravan was left for the vultures a hundred miles to the northwest."
Ian stopped breathing for a moment. "A whole caravan?' he asked stupidly.
"And there's worse. The animals were dead, sure, but not desecrated. The men?."
"The men what?? Ian found himself almost whispering.
"Well," Ware hesitated. "No blood in their bodies. White as your shirt."
"The sand. It could have sunk into the sand."
"Not without it left some stain. Natives say they were killed by a demon."
Ian knew who had done it. No stopping her now. "When is your term of service here up?"
"Mere months." Ware grinned in deprecation. "They're closing El Golea, sending Wembertin home."
Wembertin was a fool. Who else would be assigned a delegation in so remote a desert outpost in the Sahara. Ian nodded. "Good."
"Why?" Ware asked.
"Just stay out of the desert, man, until you can get home to England."
Ware looked at him strangely and nodded. Touching his forehead in salute, he ducked out under the jasmine-laden pergola toward his room.
Ian sat without moving. The hunger gnawed at him, whispering what was needed to assuage it. At last shutters around the courtyard no longer seeped light. The compound would seem silent to another. Ian heard snoring and rats scurrying in the store room, the cat stalking them, the drip of precious water somewhere. The night was alive and only he could hear it.
He rose, aware of the supple grace his new strength gave him. Time to try assuaging his dreadful hunger with a substitute Major Ware would find distasteful but not a certain sign of evil. It was a slim hope, but possible. He shed his very English coat and returned to a burnoose. Then he slipped out of the compound into the night, clutching the little knife. The need surged inside him, bringing a sound from his throat that might be a growl. He had not much time.
Ian sat in his room with every crack sealed against the desert light. The feeling of life coursing through his veins had driven him to drink the blood in the water sack and kept him alive across the burning deserts of the Sahara even as fever raged in his body. Now it surged inside him with unbelievable strength.
His plan had failed. He thought that drinking the blood of a cow would appease his hunger. He'd cut its artery with the little knife, sucked the blood. When the cow had fallen on him he'd thrust its two thousand pounds off with no more concern than it if had been a lap dog.
But it was not his new strength which tore at his mind. He'd vomited up the cow's blood. And the hunger had surged up in seeming revenge, engulfing him, until he had done a thing unthinkable. He had sucked the blood of the young cowherd. Worse, he had not needed the little knife to open the artery in the young man's throat. Ian almost wailed his guilt, his dread of what he had become. He clapped a hand over his mouth to prevent the sound, grimacing his revulsion. He had not killed the boy, it was true. But he might have.
Was he mad? No. That was the worst of all. This was who he was now. This drive to life was part of the beast she had made him. He would drink blood to satisfy it. When the hunger was on him, he would do anything to keep alive. Dear God! He had inherited her evil!
There was only one answer. His resolve warred with the singing life in his veins.
So he sat in the dark while he battled the urge to life and gathered his strength. It was afternoon before he could place the chair. Every fiber of his body fought what he wanted to do. He had to rest before he could cut the rope net that supported the mattress on his cot. What he was about to do was wrong. But it was without doubt the lesser of two evils. He hoped that once he had done it God would forgive him, since he sought only to redeem the greater sin.
Now, in the heat of the afternoon when all were resting...now was the time to do it.
He climbed the chair.
"He's gone, poor bastard." Ian heard the Major's voice dimly. Someone held his wrist. He opened his eyes. Several gasps were quite distinguishable. The room was at an angle. He straightened his head. Jenks and Evans jerked back. Even in the dim room he saw them go pale.
Major Ware hung over him. "Rufford?" he whispered. His voice was uncertain.
Ian's neck felt...odd. He turned his head. No, that was better.
Around the circle, the whispering grew frantic. At the door Arabs made the sign against evil and scurried away, gabbling. Ian swallowed twice.
"Why do you look like that?" he asked the circle. His voice came out a croak.
"You...you had a near thing." The major said. He looked as though he'd seen a ghost.
Ian's gaze darted about the room. He was lying on a mattress on the floor. There was the chair, overturned. A shred of rope still hung from the beam where they must have cut him down. "I remember." His voice was clearer now. The soreness in his throat dissolved. Sadness pushed on his chest and made breathing difficult. "Even the last solace is denied me."
Sadness boiled over into rage without notice. He sat bolt upright. The men leapt back as though he had attacked them. "Go," he yelled. "Get out of here! What are you looking at?"
They disappeared as fog evaporates under the blast of the sun. Only Ware stayed. Ian could see the questions burning inside him, questions so outrageous they could not be asked. "You, too, Ware," he growled, sinking back onto the mattress. "You can do no good here."
Ware rose, uncertainty mirrored clearly in his face. He was considering whether he should leave a man who had just committed suicide to his own devices, or whether he was a fool for not running from the room screaming. Personally, Ian recommended the latter.
"What happened to you out there, man?" Ware asked hoarsely.
Rufford stared at him for a long moment. He had never asked about the slavery, about the marks on Ian?s body, even about what was in the water skin, though speculation on all those topics was rampant throughout the delegation. Ian could always hear the whispers. As payment for that forbearance, the man deserved an answer. "I became my worst enemy, friend; my very own nightmare." He closed his eyes. "Now go, for your own good, go."
Ware turned to the door. "The men will tell Wembertin," he said, not looking back.
"He won't believe them. And he won't want the scandal. I'll be gone tomorrow."
Ware nodded. "I'll tell him," he said as he closed the door.