The Hour of the Jackal by Nene Adams ©1998 - All rights reserved
This on-line novel contains graphic violence, adult situations and language, and the depiction of a romantic relationship between two mature, adult women. Reader discretion is advised. No unauthorized copying or duplication or publishing in any format, electronic or otherwise, will be permitted without the express, written consent of the author.
I am dying, Egypt, dying;
Rhiannon cursed beneath her breath and pushed a straggling lock of red-gold hair off her forehead with the back of her hand. She was leaning so far into the deep traveling trunk that she was practically standing on her head and there was no end to her frenzied packing in sight.
Cairo... It had better be as good as the Cook's brochures, she thought sourly. Rhiannon had been so excited at the prospect of traveling to exotic Egypt that she'd wanted to leap around and clap her hands with glee. It was finally August; she and Lina would be leaving in the morning on the trip the peer had given her last Christmas.
But as of eleven o'clock this morning, their trunks still hadn't been packed, due mostly to the fact that Solange, Lina's ladies maid, had already left for Egypt, sent ahead to make ''arrangements'' - and Lina herself had flitted off on some errand earlier that afternoon.
Leaving me to deal with the logistics of packing enough clothing to last our trip, taking into account every possible contingency, since I'm sure we won't be able to purchase anything important once we're away, Rhiannon thought.
She leaned forward further, the edge of the trunk digging into her belly, heels actually lifting off the floor, and shoved aside a pile of lacy underthings to make room for another shoe bag. Rhiannon was so engrossed in her packing that she failed to hear soft footsteps behind her...
A hard hand clapped itself to her rounded buttocks and a deep voice boomed, '''Ello, me pretty!''
With a shriek, Rhiannon leaped up, banging her head with a sickening crack on the open lid of the trunk. Fireworks exploded in her vision as she instinctively put one hand to the back of her head and tried to turn around, eyes watering, already wondering where her staff was and how an intruder could have gotten into the house. With hammering heart, she tried to ignore the sudden, sharp sensations of dizziness and nausea that threatened to bring her to her knees and just let her instincts take over.
Her pale blue eyes took in the blurred vision of a tall, well-set man standing in front of her as she spun around, and the endless drills Lina had put her through in the mysterious Oriental martial discipline known as baritsu suddenly took over. With a pained grunt, Rhiannon struck out with one fist straight to the stranger's solar plexus, swinging her arm with all the weight of her body behind it as she had been taught. Breath exploded from his lungs as the man folded over and collapsed, struggling and gasping.
Rhiannon turned to run, knowing her only hope was to get downstairs and get help, visions of rape and bloody murder running through her brain, but she was stopped in her tracks when a familiar voice wheezed, ''Wait.''
Rhiannon whipped around, strawberry-blonde hair loosened from its pins and swirling to her hips, her head throbbing. She blinked and her vision cleared. It was Lina who knelt on the floor, both arms wrapped around her middle - Lina in her men's costume with a sickly smile on her beautiful face.
Slowly, Rhiannon walked towards the woman she had wed, one hand rubbing the back of her aching head. Helplessly, she said, ''Lina?''
Lady Evangeline St. Claire managed to get her breathing under control enough to speak. ''Yes, my dear,'' she replied, pushing herself up off the floor. ''None other.'' She rubbed her stomach but bestowed a proud smile on Rhiannon, tickled that the smaller woman had managed to take her by surprise.
Rhiannon was speechless. She struggled to find something to say, then settled for, ''Why?''
''Oh, you mean my little greeting?'' Lina left off rubbing her abused middle and dusted off the knees of her dark gray trousers. ''I am sorry, my dear. I only meant to surprise you, not cause undue alarm. Did you strike your head?''
Rhiannon nodded. Part of her wanted to strangle the peer and the other part wanted to howl in laughter... only her head hurt too much for either right now. ''Yes. You know, Lina, you shouldn't do that. What if I'd had a knife or something?''
''Well, apart from the fact that one rarely has a knife to hand when one is packing underclothes and the like, the opportunity was too great to resist. Rhiannon, you have no idea how tempting you looked, leaning over in that fashion.'' Lina sighed. ''You really do have the loveliest rounded extremities, my dear.''
Rhiannon rolled her eyes. ''Lina, we really don't have time for this. I have to finish packing! You know Solange is gone, and there's no use in asking Buttercup for help, and you've been gone all morning, and now I've got the worst headache, and it's really all too much!'' She felt like bursting into tears of frustration and anger but gulped them down. Rhiannon hated it that she cried whenever overcome by emotion; it made her feel like a weakling.
''Shhh,'' Lina crooned, enfolding the smaller woman in her arms and bestowing a gentle kiss on her forehead. ''I am truly, truly sorry. I assure you it was meant as a jest, nothing more. I certainly did not mean for you to injure yourself.'' She kissed the tip of Rhiannon's nose. ''Shall I have Cook bring up some ice for your head?''
''No,'' Rhiannon replied, rubbing the sore spot and wincing a little. ''I'll live. Really, love, I had no idea it required so much packing just to take a little trip! I guess I'm overtired; maybe I'll take a little nap and finish later.''
Lina's emerald green eyes were filled with concern. ''What the Devil have you been packing?'' she asked.
''Everything needed by two gentlewomen of means who are traveling to a foreign country,'' Rhiannon replied sharply. ''We'll need at least four changes of clothing each day, plus all the undergarments, stockings, shoes, accessories, jewelry... nmot to mention toilet articles, medical supplies like arnica and ipecac, and the like. I think we should just pack up the entire house and move to Egypt! It would save me considerable time, anyway.''
Despite herself, Rhiannon realized there was a small, sullen note in her tone and she was slightly ashamed. Lina is only trying to give me a treat, she scolded herself. Don't spoil it by acting like a child!
If Lina noticed Rhiannon's tone, she didn't mention it. ''But my dear!'' she exclaimed. ''Surely you don't think we'll be staying in some barbarous outpost, surrounded by hostile natives with no relief in sight! We will hardly be following the gallant Gordon's footsteps, you know.''
Lina's mention of the siege of Khartoum - where the Mahdi's forces had slaughtered General ''Chinese'' Gordon and his men less than five years previously - made Rhiannon shudder. ''I hope we'll be safe,'' she muttered.
''My dear, we shall be perfectly safe! We will be staying at Shepheard's Hotel in Cairo for a few days - and I assure you it is quite the height of European elegance - then we will be off on our Cook's tour and down the Nile by steam! I really cannot wait to show you the ruins at Karnak! And while we are in Cairo, I intend to take you to Mena House for dinner one night and show you the moonlight over the pyramids. It is quite romantic,'' Lina concluded, giving Rhiannon a significant look.
Despite her painful head, Rhiannon felt herself melting. She marveled at the effect Lina had on her. All she has to do is look at me with those amazing eyes, Rhiannon thought, and all I can think about is how much I love her.
Lina was continuing, ''In any case, my dear, light packing is the order of the day. We shan't be expected to dress for dinner on the boat over, or on the train for that matter. Some simple dresses will suffice.''
''But what will we wear in Cairo?'' Rhiannon asked, brows drawn together in a frown.
''Pack a few evening gowns. Solange is taking care of some new clothing for us - it will be waiting at the hotel. We will require the big trunks but there really is no need to bring an entire wardrobe. We will need jewelry, however, and toilet articles. But do not worry, my dear!'' Lina said, hugging Rhiannon. ''Anything forgotten thing can be easily acquired in the marketplace.''
Rhiannon felt a vast sense of relief, as if an enormous burden had been lifted off her shoulders. ''Well, I'm glad to hear that! I really had no idea what to pack, Lina. You weren't here and Solange was gone...''
''My poor darling!'' Lina said sympathetically. ''And I neglected to tell you anything! That is soon put aright, however. I am here and we shall have these trunks packed in a trice. And afterward... I do not suppose you will feel the need for a bath before your nap?''
Rhiannon giggled. ''A bath? Only if I can persuade a certain tall, beautiful and buxom woman to join me.''
Lina smiled. ''I believe that may be arranged,'' she murmured, releasing Rhiannon. Whirling around, the dark-haired woman began sorting through the myriad dresses hanging in the enormous wardrobe, flipping through them like a deck of cards. It was obvious that she was impatient and Rhiannon knew why.
Rhiannon walked over and pressed herself against Lina's back, putting her arms around the taller woman's waist. ''I do love you,'' she said simply.
Lina stopped, then pulled one of Rhiannon's hands up to her lips and kissed it. ''And I love you as well,'' she answered. With a sigh, the peer began sorting again.
Rhiannon chuckled. This will probably be the swiftest packing in female sartorial history!, she thought, and felt a flush of heat that made her catch her breath. Suddenly, she was impatient to finish as well.
Letting go of Lina, Rhiannon raced to the dresser and began pulling out undergarments, shawls and stockings, flinging them into the trunk with abandon. As she hurried, in her imagination she heard the opening bars of the Ascot races played by bugles, and an announcer bawl, ''They're off!''
She giggled again... headache all
Boats and trains, trains and boats, days of boring travel... and now she was in Egypt! Rhiannon exulted, a delighted smile curving her lips as she walked at Lina's side through the Muski, the main thoroughfare through Old Cairo. Modern looking buildings and shops lined the crowded street and narrow alleyways pierced the busy artery of traffic, leading to more shops in the bazaars, more adventures...
Vendors carrying wooden trays around their necks or balanced on their heads loudly hawked their merchandise on every corner. Dealers in fake scarabs were doing a brisk business with European travelers, while vendors of fly-covered sweetmeats were kept busy warding off the swarms of naked children who danced and played among the forest of adult legs.
The two women side-stepped into a narrow covered passageway that led to a small square with a public fountain. There, veiled women in ragged black clothes gossiped; one boldly pointed at Rhiannon and giggled.
Rhiannon looked down at her costume; it was certainly the strangest thing she had ever worn but she had to admit it was also the most comfortable and eminently suitable for Egypt's harsh climate. Wide-legged Turkish trousers of peacock blue had been tucked into knee-length boots; a white shirtwaist, the neck undone and sleeves rolled up, allowed her to stay reasonably cool despite the heat. Instead of hat, Rhiannon carried a silk parasol with a strong steel shaft, and like Lina, kept her money in a pouch that was tied around her neck and tucked into her shirt.
Lina wore a similar costume, but her trousers were pale leaf green, and she wore a colorfully embroidered vest over her shirtwaist. Disdaining a parasol, the dark-haired peer wore a pith helmet tilted back on her head and a wide leather belt wrapped around her waist held a pair of holstered pistols. Lina also had a knife tucked into the top of each boot; despite her assurances to Rhiannon, she knew that Cairo was a seething hotbed of crime and not all criminal activities could be laid at the doorstep of the natives.
Walking leisurely, they entered the Khan el Khaleel, the bazaar of the metalworkers. Small shops lined the street, with the stone benches called mastabas in front; customers sat on the mastabas while the proprietor produced glittering merchandise from locked boxes within the shop.
Rhiannon suddenly gasped as they threaded their way through the crowded bazaar. She plucked Lina's sleeve. ''Lina, I'd like to go over there,'' she said, pointing at the dark doorway of a small shop.
With a shrug and a smile, Lina led Rhiannon to her destination. The mastaba in front of the shop was occupied, but upon seeing the two European women, the customer quickly vacated his seat, much to the disgust of the shop's owner - a small, round man with enormous mustaches and an immaculate green turban that bulged on the top of his head like a ripe cabbage.
Rhiannon seated herself gracefully, Lina looming behind her with a scowl. Instantly, the shop keeper's sour expression changed to one of ingratiating politeness. ''How may I assist the honored sitt?'' he asked in honeyed tones.
''A few moments ago, when we were passing, I saw the most extraordinary necklace. Could I see it again?''
''Of course,'' the man answered. Flitting back into his shop, he quickly emerged with a necklace stretched between his hands. It was a wide collar of gold, the links of the chain heavy and elaborately carved into leaping leopards. Polished balls of turquoise and lapis lazuli were interposed between the skillfully rendered cats. The owner smiled. ''Does the honored sitt speak of this poor offering?'' he asked, mustaches bobbing.
''Oh, my word,'' Rhiannon breathed, stretching out one hand. ''May I?'' she asked, and gasped again when the magnificent necklace weighted her palm. She turned it over, the sun striking sparks from the highly polished surfaces. Her mouth firmed; looking at the proprietor with ice-blue eyes, Rhiannon said, ''If there are matching earrings and a bracelet, I will buy the set. If the price is right.''
As the proprietor leaped back into his shop with an alacrity that belied his years, Lina put one hand on Rhiannon's shoulder. ''Perhaps you had better allow me to bargain with the fellow, my dear,'' she said softly. ''These shopkeepers s are shrewd and pride themselves on cheating Europeans.''
Rhiannon shook her head. ''I'll be fine,'' she replied. ''Why don't you go to the bazaar of the leatherworkers, Lina? I know you said you wanted to find some slippers for Jackson and the rest.''
Lina frowned. ''Are you positive, my dear? I may be some time...''
''Yes, I'm sure. Go on, go on,'' Rhiannon said, flapping her free hand like a farmwife shooing errant chickens. ''Come back when you're finished. I'll be waiting for you.''
''Very well.'' Lina was full of misgivings but did not want to provoke a fight in the middle of the crowded bazaar. Rhiannon is an adult, she reminded herself, and fully capable of defending herself against unwanted attentions. If nothing else, I have seen to that.
Bending down to plant a tender kiss on the back of Rhiannon's neck, Lina murmured, ''I shall return as soon as humanly possible.''
The peer strode away, pushing herself through the throng, not realizing that her passage was watched by two pairs of hostile eyes.
An hour later, Rhiannon had concluded her bargaining and was flushed with success. Not only had she gotten the set for a price that seemed laughably low, she had also gotten the owner to throw in a few pretty bracelets of faience beads. The package was on its way to the hotel and she couldn't wait to see the necklace, earrings and bracelet adorning her beloved Lina.
I wonder if I could get her to wear them with nothing else on, she wondered, licking her lips at the provocative image of Lina adorned in barbaric gold, the sun gleaming on her magnificent curves...
Peering around, Rhiannon spied a familiar pith helmet bobbing above the bustling mob. With judicious use of elbows, the small woman forced her way across the path, ducking beneath arms, squeezing into spaces and leaving a trail of curses in her wake. Rhiannon stopped immediately behind Lina, who was standing stock still in the middle of the path.
''Lina?,'' she asked, a huge smile lighting up her heart-shaped face. ''You won't believe the price I paid for that set...'' Her voice trailed off as the peer turned around.
The taller woman's face was white to the lips. As Rhiannon's eyes widened in horror, she noticed a small dagger protruding from Lina's shoulder, a dark-red stain of blood blooming like a hot-house rose against the white fabric of her shirt.
''Oh.'' Lina's voice was strained. ''There you are, my dear. I seem to have had an accident.''
Rhiannon caught Lina she collapsed, the larger woman's weight carrying them both to the dusty road. The carelessly wrapped package in Lina's hand burst open when it fell, elaborately embroidered slippers spilling out onto the dirt, their metallic threads glittering like precious gems beneath the bright Egyptian sun...
...no brighter than the blood that
pooled in the yellowish sand.
Rhiannon stood on the small terrace of their third floor room at Shepheard's, breathing deeply. Across the way, the famed Ezbekiah Garden was in full bloom with colorful mimosas, chrysanthemums and poinsettias; velvety masses of crimson, gold and white roses perfumed the air and created a landscape that might have been painted by an Old Master.
It was like a dream, Rhiannon thought, then with a grimace amended that statement: No, it was a nightmare.
Lina was in bed, resting. The doctor summoned to the hotel had removed the dagger and stitched the wound. Lina had returned to consciousness shortly after her collapse; it was she who had insisted that the police not be summoned. A sizable garnishee to the doctor, and another to the hotel manager, Mr. Buehler, had ensured their cooperation.
Rhiannon shuddered when she recalled that horrible moment when she had been sure that Lina was dead. Although lasting only a split second, it had seemed like an eternity in Hell; a thousand wild notions had flooded through her shocked mind, first and foremost among them: How will I live without her?
But when she had seen that her beloved was still breathing, Rhiannon had snapped back to her senses, assuming an air of command that would have shocked those who were only mildly acquainted with her. She had organized a litter and commandeered a cadre of volunteers from the bystanders, even forcing one irate British gentleman to give up his coat in order to cover Lina as a preventative against shock from blood loss.
When Lina had awakened from her brief swoon, she was being carried through the bazaars, en route to Shepheard's, with Rhiannon acting as a single-minded spearhead, clearing a path through the crowded streets with choice invective and, if necessary, brute force.
Word spread quickly; after a miraculously short time, the press parted smoothly in front of the woman with eyes like the sky and a voice like a lioness, many of the fellahin convinced that Rhiannon was Sekhmet incarnate, and none wishing to confront the small but fierce avatar of the awesome Lady of war and love.
Rhiannon turned away from the view of the gardens and went back into the room, passing through the sitting area and into the bedroom. Yards of foamy mosquito netting swathed the bed; behind it, she could just make out the figure of Lina, sitting up and smoking a cigarette.
Sweeping aside the folds of netting, Rhiannon reached out, snatched the cigarette from an astonished Lina's lips and flicked it out the window, where it was pounced upon by a beggar, who thanked Allah loudly for his benevolence. Lina stared open-mouthed as Rhiannon put her hands on her hips and stared back defiantly.
''Do you wish to set the entire hotel on fire?'' Rhiannon asked forcefully. ''If this confounded netting should catch from one of your nasty cigarettes, you'll be a cinder in moments.''
Lina chuckled wearily; her shoulder was throbbing and she'd refused the doctor's offer of laudanum. ''My dear, I have been to Egypt before and I am fully conversant with the incendiary properties of mosquito netting. Rest assured, I was, and shall continue to be, quite careful.''
Rhiannon's eyes flashed with fury. ''Nevertheless...,'' she began, but Lina interrupted her.
''I suspect that my smoking in bed is not the true issue. Come here, my dear,'' Lina said, patting the bed beside her. ''Tell me what truly troubles you.''
Rhiannon sighed, anger draining from her face, replaced by concern. ''You still haven't told me what happened,'' she said, sinking down on the bed and taking Lina's hand with her own. ''Why were you stabbed? And in the middle of a crowded bazaar, no less.''
To her surprise, Lina gave her a sheepish look. ''Well, it most likely had something to do with this,'' the peer replied, pulling a much-folded note from beneath her pillow and handing it to Rhiannon.
To her credit, Rhiannon unfolded the note with steady fingers and read with an air of perfect calm. Finishing, her eyes locked on Lina's and the dark-haired woman flinched at the condemnation there. ''I see.'' Rhiannon's tone was cool. ''This note reads, 'Beware of the Jackal - Or He shall devour thy heart beneath the midday sun.' It seems like a clear enough threat to me, Evangeline. When did you receive this?''
Lina gulped. ''This morning.'' Sudden fury blazed in Rhiannon's eyes and the peer hastened to explain. ''I did not even read it, my dear! It was on the stand with the washing water. We were going out, and I put it in my pocket and forgot about it until after that infernal doctor left. I was not keeping anything from you, I swear!''
Rhiannon considered, then to Lina's relief, nodded, clearly believing that the peer had not been sheltering her again. The tendency of Lina to shield Rhiannon was an old bone of contention between them, resulting in many arguments and many protests by Lina that she would do it no more. However, more than once the peer had broken those promises, much to Rhiannon's exasperation. The strawberry-blonde woman was determined that the next time Lina did such a thing, she would leave her.
As much as I love her, Rhiannon thought, looking at Lina's stricken face, I cannot live smothered in good intentions. Either I am my own woman or none at all.
''All right, love,'' she said, patting Lina's hand. ''Do you know who this Jackal person is?''
''Not a clue.'' Lina smiled tentatively, then wider when Rhiannon returned that smile. ''I have no enemies in this part of the world that I am aware of. Upon my first reading, I decided that the party in question had merely mistaken the room, or that the safragi, having received his bribe, gave the note to us rather than the correct person.''
Rhiannon nodded. The safragi, even in Shepheard's, was like many native Egyptians - desperately poor and willing to take money from anyone for nearly any purpose. Those fellahin on the staff who were safragi, many of them Copts or Egyptian Christians, were hired to sit in the halls on each floor and attend to the needs of the guests. It was not unheard of for them to procure illegal substances, such as hashish or prostitutes for a fee, and to be distinctly uncaring of the antics their guests got up to.
''And now?'' Rhiannon asked, since it was clear that Lina had rejected her original ideas.
''Now I believe this note was meant for us.'' The dark-haired woman picked up the small dagger that the doctor had removed from her shoulder. ''See?'' she said, pointing to the pommel.
Rhiannon took it and with narrowed eyes, examined the dagger. Although the blade itself was well honed steel, the hilt was gilt and liberally bejeweled with glass gems - she had seen similar knives, and many of better manufacture, in the souk, the great marketplace. But the pommel was carved obsidian, and, she realized, skillfully done. It was the stylized head of a jackal - symbol of Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead.
Rhiannon's eyes slowly lifted to meet Lina's own. The peer nodded in satisfaction. ''Yes, while a foolish man might mistake the room, or a safragi make an error, I could hardly be mistaken for another. Whoever this mysterious Jackal is, we can safely deduce that he means to do me some injury. I did not catch a good glimpse of my assailant in the crush - a particularly rude Bedouin fellow shoved me just as the assassin struck - but no doubt having failed to cause my demise, he shall try at least once more.''
While Lina leaned back on the pillows, beaming happily, Rhiannon was shocked. ''But why?'' she finally asked, nearly wailing.
Lina shook her head. ''I do not know, my dear. However,'' she concluded, a happy smile still lighting up her features, ''I do intend to find out.''
''Oh, Lord!'' Rhiannon said, lifting her hands and eyes to Heaven, ''Another mystery! I'm not sure my heart can stand it!''
Lina's crow of delighted laughter was audible out in the hall, where the laboring safragi lifted his own eyes - and they burned with martyred frustration. His lips twisted as he bent to fill another water jar, his body taut and wiry, his expression guarded.
Solange fussed with Rhiannon's hair, threading an ivory ribbon through the strawberry-blonde braids and curls that adorned the former secretary's head. Solange de Rocher, a native of Paris and part of Lina's unusual ''family'' of servants, was of medium height with blonde hair and eyes the color of anthracite. Those black eyes appraised Rhiannon in the mirror, taking in the details of her toilette.
Rhiannon had dressed for dinner, wearing one of the gowns brought from England - a confection of ruffles and poufs in every subtle shade of off-white, from ivory to ecru to eggshell. The pale fabric set off her vivid coloring beautifully, making her hair seem the classic Titian shade and her pale eyes darkened to near sapphire.
Lina would not be joining her; the peer claimed she was still feeling slightly weakened from her wound and had decided to have dinner brought up on a tray. Rhiannon had wanted to join her but Lina had insisted that she enjoy herself downstairs in the dining room.
Rhiannon recalled her spouse's words. ''After all,'' Lina had said, ''while the social conventions of English society are still prevalent, there is a certain relaxation of the rules expected when one travels in foreign climes. What is unthinkable in England - a lady dining alone in a public place - is acceptable outside of Britain. Enjoy yourself, my dear. Do.''
Rhiannon made a face at herself in the mirror, picked up her small evening purse and rose, making a minute adjustment to the Vandyke of lace that cascaded down her bodice. ''Thank you, Solange. How is Fyvie?''
The French woman smiled. The enormous Irish wolfhound, once belonging to Rhiannon's Aunt Margaret, had joined them in Egypt, and was having the time of her life. Solange had been out walking Fyvie when Lina and Rhiannon had returned to the hotel.
''She is in my room, Miss, eating a nice chine of beef,'' Solange replied. Her English was impeccable and spoken without accent. ''The hotel cook was impressed by Fyvie's appreciation of his roulade of veal.''
Solange and Rhiannon chuckled; earlier that day, the hound had scented the delicious odors of cooking, and had dragged the maid through the hotel's kitchen. Fortunately, Solange had been able to placate the enraged cook by flattering and flirting with him shamelessly, with the result that Fyvie was now the apple of the cook's eye and would certainly gain weight during her stay.
As will I, Solange thought, patting her belly appreciatively.
Rhiannon sighed. ''Well, when Fyvie's finished, send her into the bedroom to keep Lina company. I'll try to hurry through dinner as quickly as I can. Please, Solange, if you need anything, or if Lina needs anything, send the safragi to fetch me.''
''Oui, Miss,'' Solange replied, black eyes twinkling. ''We will be fine, do not worry. Enjoy your dinner.''
Rhiannon left the room, still feeling slightly disappointed that Lina had not wanted her to stay. Indeed, it almost seems like she's rushing me away, Rhiannon thought. I wonder what's wrong?
She pondered on this all the way to the dining room, so lost in thought she failed to notice the burning gaze bestowed upon her by a man lurking in the shadows of a potted palm in a corner of the hall.
The dining room was not crowded; Rhiannon was seated swiftly by the overly unctuous maitre'd and soon found herself perusing the menu with interest. She was so absorbed in deciding her dinner selection that she failed to notice the man seated across the table from her until she laid down the menu - and gasped with surprise.
The gentleman put up a liver spotted hand. ''I do beg your pardon, my lady,'' he said gently, ''I did not mean to startle you. I noticed you were seated alone and took the liberty of asking the maitre d' to seat me at your table. I hope you do not take offense at my bold presumption.''
Rhiannon studied him for a moment. Old, wrinkled and possessing a beautifully groomed white beard that flowed to the center of his waistcoat. By his Oxford accent, he was clearly English; by his round-shouldered posture and pince nez, he was a scholar of some sort. Probably a school teacher on holiday, she concluded.
''It's quite all right,'' Rhiannon replied politely. ''I would enjoy some company.''
The old man beamed. ''Allow me to take the further liberty of introducing myself. I am Doctor Stanford Burton, professor of Ancient History at Eton.''
He paused, clearly waiting, and Rhiannon hastily replied, ''Miss Rhiannon Moore, of London.''
Burton smiled again. Rhiannon noticed that his teeth were crooked and stained with tobacco. ''I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Moore,'' he said. ''May I ask, are you traveling alone?''
This question was asked with such an air of concern that Rhiannon chuckled. ''Not at all, Doctor. My patroness is Lady Evangeline St. Claire; I am accompanying her while she is on holiday in this country.'' Although Rhiannon hated to lie, she knew it was necessary to keep the true nature of her relationship with Lina hidden from casual strangers. This was the story they had agreed upon before leaving England; it was common for well-to-do ladies to engage a paid companion before traveling.
''I see.'' Burton pursed his lips. ''And are you enjoying your visit?''
Rhiannon nodded. From there, Burton guided the conversation into various yawningly-polite topics, including the weather (''Abominable heat!''), politics (''A pox on all Liberals!'') and archaeology (''Cursed tomb robbers!'') and dominating it to the extent that Rhiannon could not get a word in edgewise. Their dinners were ordered and eaten, from soup to cheese and sweetmeats; with a start, Rhiannon realized that several hours had passed. The dining room was nearly empty and the Doctor was expounding on the nature of Darwinism and its impact on the economy.
For the fourth time, Rhiannon stifled a yawn behind a concealing hand. ''I do beg your pardon, Doctor Burton, but I simply must return to my room. I'm sure my employer is wondering where I am.''
If she hoped to get rid of the vociferous old windbag, she was mistaken. Gallantly, Doctor Burton rose, tossing his napkin down on the table. ''I will be more than happy to escort you, Miss Moore,'' he announced.
Rhiannon swallowed a groan. If she had to listen to another five minutes of Burton's oratory, she was sure her ears would fall off. Nevertheless, one must be polite... ''I would be most grateful,'' she replied with an internal wince.
Burton offered his arm and escorted Rhiannon to the great staircase that led to the upper floors of the hotel. A small boy was standing at the foot of the stairs; spying Rhiannon, he hurried over. Thrusting a small bouquet of lavender, white roses and greenery at her, he said breathlessly, ''For the sitt!''
Rhiannon smiled and took the fragrant bundle. ''Thank you!'' she said, rummaging in her evening bag for a coin. The boy shook his head. ''No, sitt. I have already been paid.''
The boy hurried away and Burton frowned. ''Now, why the Devil didn't he stay to receive his tip?'' he asked in a tone of voice so different from his own that Rhiannon stared.
Suddenly, the old man shouted, ''Watch out!'' and dashed the flowers out of Rhiannon's hand to the floor, stomping on them enthusiastically.
Rhiannon backed away, sure that Professor
Burton had gone quite mad.
Burton's face was twisted into an expression of maniacal determination as he stamped away lustily. Finally, he stopped, then stooped over and began a minute examination of the wrecked bouquet.
Rhiannon glanced around, hoping she could catch the eye of an hotel employee, when Burton straightened with a grunt. He was holding something pinched between thumb and forefinger.
''A deadly present,'' he said, coming closer.
With a shudder, Rhiannon realized he was holding some kind of insect. ''What is it?"
''A black desert scorpion. I saw the gaslight glinting off this fellow's carapace; he was lurking in your pretty flowers. One sting and you would have been dead by sunrise, I'm afraid.''
Rhiannon shuddered again. ''T-t-thank you,'' she stammered. ''I wonder how...''
Burton interrupted, speaking softly. ''It may have been a simple accident, but I think not. Observe; tied around the scorpion's abdomen is a bit of black thread. This arachnid was deliberately introduced into that bouquet, I believe, and it was apparently meant for you. Perhaps as an exceptionally cruel joke?''
Rhiannon squared her shoulders. Be brave!, she told herself. This example of the Jackal's work may be important! Pulling a cambric handkerchief from her evening bag, she asked, ''May I?''
The doctor deposited the remains of the scorpion in the handkerchief and Rhiannon thrust it back into her bag. ''Thank you again, Doctor Burton. I shall not forget your assistance.''
As Burton watched open mouthed, Rhiannon
swept up the stairs without another word, determined to see Lina without
further delay and quite forgetting her manners in her rush. The Doctor
scratched his head and shrugged, turning away to disappear through the
door of the hotel and into the star-speckled night.
Upstairs, Rhiannon was struggling with the door, hands shaking so badly she had difficulty getting the key into the lock. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a familiar figure sauntering down the hall towards her.
She shook her head, and looked again. Yes, it was Lina! In her men's costume, her night-black hair concealed beneath a bowler, a pair of glittering spectacles perched on the end of her aristocratic nose.
''Lina?'' Rhiannon said, frowning. ''I thought you were...'' Her voice trailed off when the figure started, half-turned as if seeking a means of escape, then slunk towards her. Lina's posture reminded Rhiannon of Fyvie when the hound had done something to earn her mistress' displeasure.
''Er, good evening, my dear,'' Lina said, drawing nearer. Rhiannon took in the dust covered clothing that draped the peer's muscular form; it was clear that Lina had been outside in the street.
Abruptly, a flood of anger took the place of Rhiannon's fright. The combination of the day's events - the excitement of shopping in the souk, the shock and horror of Lina's wounding, her own brush with near-death, the sudden horrible realization that the assassin was still active and knew of the two women's movements, and now Lina, once again breaking her promise - it was all too much. Rhiannon's mind went up in flames.
Her normally sweet, heart-shaped face turned an ugly shade of red; when Rhiannon opened her mouth, however, her voice was icily calm. ''Where have you been?'' she asked in such a reasonable tone that Lina flinched.
''Oh, well...,'' Lina vacillated. ''You see, my dear...''
Rhiannon held up an imperious hand. ''Wait.'' With regal dignity, she managed to get the key into the stubborn lock and opened the hotel room door. With another gesture, she motioned Lina to go in.
The peer hesitated, then hastened in the room when Rhiannon's pale blue eyes locked on hers. There was sheer, bloody rage in that glare, and while Lina was brave, when it came to Rhiannon she would do anything to placate the woman she loved.
The door was closed with exquisite care, then Rhiannon turned to face her errant spouse. ''Well?'' she asked, raising a brow.
''I admit I am in error,'' Lina replied; in trying to run a hand through her hair, she knocked the bowler onto the floor. Her jet black hair, loosely pinned, tumbled down. ''Please, my dear, do not be too distraught. I assure you that...''
''You've been out again. Without. Me. Again.''
''Well, yes, if one must put it that way...''
Rhiannon's face was still brick-red. ''No. No more excuses. No more lies, half-truths or promises. This is it, Lina.''
Lina's face turned ashen. ''W-w-what do you mean?''
''I'm leaving.'' Rhiannon's eyes seemed to snap blue sparks. ''I told you, Lady St. Claire, that the next time you did this to me, I would leave. I will not be coddled like a brain-damaged child!'' Her hands were shaking. ''I WILL NOT! DO YOU HEAR ME?!''
Lina flinched back, mouth working, hands raised as if to ward off a blow. ''Please, my dear,'' she began, but Rhiannon cut her off.
''You lied to me yet again and this is it. I'm through! I'm tired of you behaving as if I'm some... some... some goddamned bit of senseless baggage who has to be kept swaddled in cotton wool for her own good!''
Lina scrubbed her face with one trembling hand. ''No, wait!'' she said frantically, ''Please, my dear, if you would just listen...''
Rhiannon had one hand on the doorknob. ''No more excuses. I won't hear them anymore. Goodbye, Lina. I'll see if I can find another room for the night. In the morning I'm returning to England; I'll have someone come up and collect my trunk.''
Without another word, Rhiannon opened the door and stalked out of the room, Lina stumbling after. ''No... NO! Please, please, Rhiannon, reconsider...,'' Lina begged but the strawberry-blonde woman kept walking.
Rhiannon felt as if her heart had broken, the shattered pieces shifting and grinding like broken glass in her chest. She loved Lina, wasn't sure if she could live without her, but this last time was the final straw.
She was not a child but a woman, and could take care of herself; they'd had this argument many times before about Lina's overprotectiveness, and always she had forgiven the other woman. This time, her resolve was firmed. No matter how much it hurt, no matter how much she longed to do nothing more than run into Lina's arms and kiss her tears away, she could not stay - not and keep her dignity, her pride, her hard-won independence. Lina's suffering tore at her like knives but she ignored the pain and raised her chin, determined not to show weakness.
Rhiannon kept walking, hot tears welling up and sliding down her cheeks, burning like acid, as Lina pleaded, ''NO! NO! Stay, love... please...''
Lina slid down the wall and collapsed on the floor, weeping madly, whispering, ''...please...'' over and over again, until Rhiannon's footsteps no longer echoed in the empty hall. Still crying, the peer crawled into the hotel room and the door slammed shut behind her.
For a long time, there was only silence.
Solange held Fyvie's red leather lead, pulled along briskly by the amber-eyed wolfhound. When they reached the door of the room, however, Fyvie's plumed tail stopped whisking back and forth. She whined, looking from Solange to the door with such confusion that the maid knew instantly something was wrong.
She'd been gone far longer than she'd intended; while walking Fyvie, she'd encountered a very handsome young French gentleman and had been engaged in a flirtation that she'd enjoyed very much. Now, however, Solange no longer resembled the Parisian coquette; with a flick of her wrist, a razor-sharp dagger shot into her hand from the quick-release sheath strapped to her upper arm and concealed beneath the sleeve of her spotless shirtwaist.
Solange bent and unfastened Fyvie's lead from her collar, knowing that if her two mistresses were in danger, the hound would prove to be another deadly weapon in a potential fight. Fyvie at her heels, growling softly, Solange tried the doorknob. It was unlocked.
Drawing a breath, the maid eased the door open, dagger held professionally low. The gaslight was down and shadows danced on the walls as she walked into the small foyer, every sense keen and alert for the slightest movement.
She heard a moan.
Moving swiftly but hugging the wall, Solange entered the sitting room - and stood still in shock.
This afternoon, Lady Evangeline had been wounded, certainly, but she had seemed to be making a good recovery; in fact, she had felt so much better that she had gone to attend some business, which the maid knew about and had, in fact arranged. The peer had been certain she would return before Rhiannon's dinner was over. She had been happy, even smug. But now...
Solange sucked in her breath. Lina had been drinking, and from the shattered remains of the bottles thrown against the furniture, she had been drinking quite a lot.
Lina knelt on the floor, oblivious to the shards of glass that cut into her knees, a bottle of whiskey in her lap. She fumbled with the cork in the bottle, finally managing to draw it out, and the cork bounced on the floor as she lifted the bottle to her lips and took a long swallow, throat working as she gulped like a hardened drunkard.
Solange's hand knocked the bottle away. ''What are you doing?'' she asked, black eyes wide with horror. ''You cannot do this!''
Lina growled. Her green eyes were bloodshot, hair a tangled mess, and it was obvious she had been crying. ''Give me that!'' she spat, hastily retrieving the bottle. Sloshing it around, she peered at the remains of the whiskey. ''You made me spill it!'' she accused with shrill fury.
''Please, milady! You must not do this to yourself! What has happened? Where is Miss Rhiannon?'' Solange looked around frantically; there was no sign of her mistress' lover. ''What has happened? You must tell me!''
Lina took another long drink, shuddering as the molten whiskey traced a fiery path down to her belly. Wiping her lips with one hand, she replied, ''She's left me. She's gone. Gone, gone, GONE!'' Her voice rose into a shriek and the bottle flew across the room, shattering against the wall, a brown stain running down to sink into the carpet.
Solange squatted down. ''Why?''
Lina shrugged then tried to stand up, swaying, only to fall heavily back down to the floor. With a snarl of rage, she batted away Solange's hands and managed to crawl over to the liquor cabinet that stood on one side of the room. The maid flinched as Lina's hands suffered cuts from the broken glass.
Fyvie whined, capturing Solange's attention for a moment. ''Stay, Fyvie!'' she commanded the hound, unwilling to allow Rhiannon's beloved pet to negotiate the glass strewn room. Turning back to Lina, who had wrestled another bottle from the cabinet, Solange said forcefully, ''Lady Evangeline, I will not let you to do this to yourself!''
Ignoring her, Lina casually smashed the neck of the bottle against the cabinet door. She opened her mouth and poured most of the contents of the bottle in, dark brown whiskey sloshing out of the corners of her mouth, running down her chin, soaking her to the eyebrows. Solange hurried over and wrenched the bottle away from her.
''Are you trying to kill yourself?'' Solange asked. ''You know what happened last time. Do you want Miss Rhiannon to see you this way?''
Lina was stricken. Burying her face in her hands, she began to cry with the desperate sobs of a heartbroken child. ''She's left me, Solange! Oh, God, she's gone!'' Lina looked up at the maid, her face grotesquely transfigured by grief. ''Rhiannon's gone...''
Solange squatted down again and put a hand on Lina's shoulder. ''Tell me what happened,'' she said with an air of undeniable command.
Somehow, Lina managed to gasp out the entire story while Solange nodded and patted her shoulder. Finally, when Lina wailed, ''It was all my fault! All my fault!,'' and broke down into shuddering tears again, Solange stood up and adjusted her skirt.
''Lady Evangeline, look at me.'' Lina did, tears still streaming down her face. Solange continued, ''We will work this out. But first, you must get washed up and I will put you to bed.''
''No! No, no, no! Oh God, I need another drink!'' Lina said, ''She hates me! And it was all my fault... I need another drink, Solange. Give me another drink, damn you! I need it... I need her, but she's gone and it's all I have left!''
Solange sighed. ''No. You've had more than enough. Listen to me, my friend. Yes,'' she continued when Lina shook her head violently, ''you are my friend as well as my employer, but tonight our roles are reversed. You will pick yourself up, you will compose yourself and you will go to bed. NOW! Or I swear before God, Lady Lina, I will leave you, too!''
At this threat, Lina dissolved into tears again. Solange managed to get her up and trundled her to the bedroom, where the still-weeping peer spent some time throwing up into a basin, with the maid supporting her and wiping her face with a damp cloth. That over, Lina tried to wheedle more whiskey from Solange but the Frenchwoman was deaf to her pleas.
Finally, Lina lapsed into temper fit and Solange was spared serious injury only because alcohol consumption had made her mistress uncoordinated; as it was, Lina still managed to land a lucky blow. The maid winced, touching her bruised cheek, but waded back into the fray.
Much later, Lina was safely ensconced in bed, her cuts bandaged, face washed and hair loosely braided; sleeping or unconscious, Solange wasn't sure which.
The maid blew an errant blonde curl off her face. She was already mortally tired; dealing with an uncontrollably drunken mistress was something she thought she would never do again. Strange, she thought, how one never loses one's old skills, no matter how long it has been since they have been practiced.
Grimly, Solange looked at the mantle clock. Having dealt with Lady Evangeline, it was now time to go deal with Miss Rhiannon.
She walked quietly out of the suite, shutting the door behind her. Fyvie was at her side; the enormous wolfhound was obviously confused and frightened. Before she went downstairs to pay a call on Mr. Buehler, the hotel manager, Solange knelt down and put her arms around the dog. ''Don't you worry either, mon petite,'' she murmured against Fyvie's ear, ''Solange will fix everything. You'll see.''
Rhiannon sat in her dark hotel room, staring into space. Mr. Buehler had been most accommodating; he had asked no questions, merely nodded and made arrangements for another room, seeing Rhiannon escorted there safely. Her trunks would be moved from Lina's room in the morning and she had nothing except her tiny purse, but at this point, Rhiannon didn't care that she was still wearing her evening gown, that her elaborate coiffure had come down into a tangled mess of ribbons and curls, that sleep would be elusive, if non-existent. She cared about nothing - she just sat and stared, her mind circling again and again back to Lina's whispered, tearful pleas.
There were no more tears from her, however. Rhiannon's face was dry, although her pale-blue eyes were hazy and filmed with grief. She sat, surrounded by darkness and silence, shredding a bit of ivory ribbon she held in her lap. She refused even to look at her hands while they picked and unraveled; the phoenix ring given to her as a wedding gift by Lina still flashed on her left hand in the uncertain moonlight and Rhiannon knew that if she glanced at that reminder of happier days, she would dissolve into a fountain of salt and heartbreak and probably weep forever.
She tried not to think about it, didn't want to dwell on it, but every time she closed her eyes, all Rhiannon could see was Lina's face, gray as yesterday's ashes...
All she could hear over the beating of her heart was Lina's voice begging, pleading...
Desperate, she cast her mind about, trying to think of something, anything, that would drive these specter's away, but instead, jumbled images of their life together would spin out of the recesses of her imagination, and each memory wrenched at her heart.
A knock at the door made Rhiannon jump. Hand pressed to her rapidly beating heart, she rose and said, ''Who is it?''
''Solange.'' The maid's voice was muffled but it was unmistakably her's.
Rhiannon sighed. For a moment, she had thought... ruthlessly, she forced that faint hope aside. She had made her decision and now must live with it, no matter how much it hurt. ''I'm not well, Solange,'' she called out. ''Perhaps you could return at another time.''
There was silence, then Solange replied, ''Fyvie is here, Miss Rhiannon. She wants you.''
Fyvie? Rhiannon suddenly, desperately wanted the comfort of her loyal wolfhound. Hurrying to the door, she unlocked it and flung it open.
Solange stood there, a bruise darkening on one cheek. Fyvie, plumed tail wagging rapidly back and forth, leaped into the room with a woof, jumping up and planting her enormous paws on Rhiannon's shoulders, sharp muzzle questing against the woman's ear.
Rhiannon staggered backwards; Fyvie was no lightweight. ''Down, Fyvie!'' she said, ''Down!''
The excited wolfhound obeyed but stayed close to Rhiannon, actually huddling in the skirts of her evening gown, tail still wagging, tongue lolling out of the side of her mouth in a doggie grin.
Solange took the opportunity to enter the room herself and carefully closed the door behind her. ''We need to talk,'' she announced calmly.
Rhiannon turned and went back into the sitting room, sinking back down into her chair. Fyvie lay down at her mistress' feet with a contented sigh. When Solange went to turn up the gaslights, Rhiannon murmured, ''No. Leave it. I prefer the dark.''
Solange turned up the gaslight anyway, leaving it low, then sat down on an ottoman and put her hands together in her lap.
''I think...,'' she started to say, but was interrupted by Rhiannon, who blurted, ''Did Lina send you?''
Solange shook her head, not missing the disappointed look on Rhiannon's face. ''Miss Rhiannon,'' she said, ''Lady Lina is... not well.''
Rhiannon sat up straight. ''What do you mean?,'' she asked, eyes widening with worry and a hint of panic.
''First, let me tell you a story,'' Solange replied, and began to unfold a tale that had Rhiannon riveted from the start... a tale which would explain much more of Lina's past than Rhiannon had ever imagined.
Immediately following Lina's disastrous relationship with Sui Lee Choi - the madame who would re-appear to such devastating effect in the adventure Rhiannon privately called The Devil's Advocate - the peer had been summoned to Paris by the then prefect of police, Henri Maurier. Maurier had asked for Lina's help in cracking a particularly clever art forgery ring.
''We know it is an inside job,'' Maurier had said, tugging on the small goatee that decorated his chin, ''But so far, all our efforts have been fruitless. Our informants have been of no use; we have raided several warehouses and condemned buildings, we have questioned every suspect, even all the Louvre Museum employees, but to no avail. My friend, Monsieur Holmes, tells me you are very good, mam'selle. Frankly,'' he had concluded, spreading his hands apart, ''since he is otherwise engaged, you are our last hope to catch these villains and see our national art treasures restored.''
The thieves were unconscionably clever; somehow, despite the tightened security, they substituted uncanny reproductions of Old Masters for the genuine article. It was often days or weeks before the substitution was uncovered; in one case, it had taken months before a sharp-eyed visitor had spotted a few tiny errors in one painting that had gone unnoticed by museum officials. The paintings were obviously being sold to private, discreet collectors; no fence would be foolish enough to think they could pass a famous artwork and receive no notice.
Lina had taken the case. During the course of her investigation, she met a young Parisian artist - Victoire Rousseau - whose cool blonde beauty captured her heart for the first time.
''She was very striking,'' Solange explained. ''Her eyes were lighter than yours, nearly colorless, and she was very beautiful. Lady Lina was quite besotted. Besides being attractive, Victoire was brilliant and a skilled artist. She had already made a name for herself among the Bohemians in the Montmartre district.''
Rhiannon felt a wave of jealousy that was nearly overwhelming. She forced it down, determined to listen, even feeling a slight sense of relief; to hear of Lina's previous love was painful in the extreme but she embraced the pain, let it wash over her, feeling it was nothing more than she deserved, welcoming it as just punishment for her separation from the woman she loved.
Solange continued, ''They went everywhere
together - the Latin Quarter, the Porte-Saint Martin theater to see Bernhardt
- and yes, Miss Rhiannon, they were lovers. From the little I was able
to gather later, it was Victoire who seduced Lady Lina. And it was Victoire
who insisted on helping with the case - despite Lady Lina's protests -
with results that were disastrous. But the Lady was in love; she could
deny Victoire nothing, and she had no way of knowing what was really going
"One night, Lady Lina went to a warehouse to wait for an informant who had promised to give her information that would lead to an arrest. Of course, Victoire went with her,'' Solange said.
Rhiannon listened with every fiber of her being, sensing this part of the story would provide her with even more insight into the character of her beloved Lina.
The two women had hidden themselves on the third floor of the warehouse, as instructed. But the informant never showed; instead, a fire broke out, accelerating quickly into an inferno that threatened to engulf the entire building in what seemed a matter of mere moments.
While Lina searched for a way out, realizing they could not exit via the stairs, Victoire was nearly hysterical with panic. As flames consumed the floorboards beneath their feet, Lina finally managed to break out a window. Calling to Victoire, who was huddled against a wall on the opposite side of the room, Lina swore as smoke and fire swirled all around.
''It was a scene out of Hell,'' Solange said. ''Lady Lina had already suffered a few minor burns but she would not leave without Victoire. Finally, she coaxed the artist to attempt to cross the room to her and Victoire began to move. But before she got halfway across, the floor collapsed beneath her...''
Lina dove forward, snagging Victoire's wrist as the shrieking woman disappeared through the gaping hole in the floor. The other two stories had already been engulfed in flames and the fire roared beneath Victoire's kicking feet.
''No!'' Victoire screamed. ''Don't let go! Don't let go!''
''Never!'' Lina gritted, struggling to improve her grip on the other woman's wrist. ''Just... hold... on...''
Lina's shirt had begun to smolder and the wood she lay on was smoking hot. Blisters popped up on her breasts and belly but Lina refused to let go. ''Hold on, Vicky! Just hold on!''
''No!'' Victoire squealed. Her pale blonde hair, come loose from its braids, danced in the superheated air, and her colorless eyes were wide with terror. ''No! Evie! Help me!''
Lina drew a breath, the air scorching her lungs. Muscles popped and twisted in her arm as she tried to draw Victoire up, but the other woman was struggling, screaming, and Lina felt her death-grip on Victoire's wrist beginning to slip.
Victoire's eyes widened even further. ''Evie! HELP ME! Oh, God, don't let me fall!''
Cords stood out in Lina's neck as she heaved with all her might, teeth clenched, every muscle in her body rigid. Victoire's screams of, ''Help me, Evie! Don't let me fall!'' echoed through her mind as she pulled with all her strength, desperately scrabbling for purchase with her other hand, trying to brace herself, determined to save her lover at all costs.
Suddenly, Lina's grip on Victoire's sweaty wrist slipped until she was clutching only the other woman's fingers. Horrified, Lina held on and kept pulling, actually managing to draw Victoire up a little, but her uncertain grip slid again and now she held only fingertips.
Victoire screamed shrilly, ''No! Evie! Don't let me fall! Help me, please! No! NO! Eeeeeeeeeevie!''
Lina's tentative grip finally slipped entirely and Victoire tumbled down, down into the leaping flames, shrieking, as Lina watched until her lover disappear into the inferno. Her mind began to crumble beneath an onslaught of guilt and rage and she trembled as Victoire's screams ceased. Then there was only the mocking voice of the fire that had left her hopes and dreams as dead as spent ash...
Solange stopped her narrative.
Rhiannon stared at the maid. ''Wh... what happened after?'' she asked. She wanted to weep, her jealousy forgotten in a rush of empathy for Lina's loss, but controlled herself with an effort.
''Somehow Lady Lina escaped the warehouse. I found her in her apartment, still wearing her filthy, smoke-stained and burned clothes. She was in shock, I think,'' Solange said simply. ''For nearly a week she said nothing, did nothing, she wouldn't even bathe, just sat in the apartment and stared at the wall. I was out of my mind with worry; I even went so far as to write to her mother, begging her to come to Paris and comfort her daughter, but Her Grace refused.''
Part of Rhiannon wanted to interrogate the maid about Lina's parents but she held her tongue. There were more important things to consider at the moment. ''And?'' she asked.
Solange sighed. ''She began drinking, but it wasn't bad at first. I managed to get a few details out of her and went to the police department. Maurier gave me to understand that the fire had been deliberately set, but beyond that, he knew little. It was a mistake to give Lady Lina that information; looking back, I should have kept it to myself.''
''She was already feeling guilty about Victoire's death, although to be perfectly honest, I thought she had done all she could do. But of course, she blamed herself, and when I told her that the warehouse fire had been a trap... well, I think at that moment she went a little mad.''
''What do you mean?''
''She began to drink more and more heavily. We found out later that she considered Victoire's death entirely her fault; if she had not allowed her to go to the warehouse that night, then Victoire never would have died in such a terrible manner. Lady Lina is not very strong emotionally, Rhiannon - I found this out during those horrible weeks when she refused to eat and kept drinking more and more. She looked like a vision of death - her eyes were yellow, the weight seemed to fall off her even as I watched, her hair was falling out... I was afraid she was trying to drink herself to death. I even tried to deny her whisky, throwing it away when I found it, but she would bribe the landlady to bring her bottles of the vile stuff and concealed them throughout the apartment. I was frantic! I finally did the one thing I should have done in the beginning. I contacted Mr. Holmes.
''Holmes was a godsend. It took nearly two weeks for him to settle his affairs in England, but the moment he arrived in Paris, I knew Lady Lina would be all right.
''He took us to a private sanitarium outside of Provence and put her under the care of a doctor. Holmes and I stayed with her throughout the ordeal and it was not pretty, Miss Rhiannon. Lady Lina was hallucinating by this time, often violent and abusive; we had to keep her strapped down to the bed to keep her from hurting herself or anyone else. I truly believe she was on the verge of insanity and only Holmes presence kept her from going over the edge into complete madness. Do you know, she even tried seducing Holmes in an attempt to get him to bring her more drink? I wept to see it.''
Rhiannon gulped back tears. Lina's overprotective tendencies had always infuriated her but now she understood why. Her own guilt rose to the surface, mingled closely with frustration. ''Why didn't she tell me?'' she asked. ''If she had only told me how she felt...''
Solange shrugged. ''I do not know why, Miss Rhiannon. That is a question you will have to ask Lady Lina herself.''
Rhiannon swallowed further protests. She had to hear the rest. ''I'm sorry, Solange. Please, go ahead.''
''Holmes went to Paris after he felt Lady Lina was recovering. By the time he returned a fortnight later, he had much more information and was clearly unhappy. He told Lady Lina that Victoire had been definitely involved in the forgery scheme; in fact, it was her artistic talents that created the substitute works, and it was almost certain that she had been deliberately sent to spy on Lina and ensure that she never came too close to apprehending the gang.''
Rhiannon was horrified. ''But... why did they burn the warehouse if they knew Victoire was inside?''
''According to Holmes, it was an accident. The fire was supposed to have been set at a certain time but a clumsy confederate knocked a lit cigarette into the paraffin. They had no way of warning Victoire so they fled, leaving her to be burned alive. When Holmes told Lady Lina this, she didn't say a word. She just turned white and refused to speak or hear anything of the matter again. But it was the turning point in her recovery. After that, it was only a matter of days before she was ready to leave France and return to England.''
''I've seen Lina drink brandy and such, Solange. If she was such a hardened drunkard, shouldn't she abstain?''
''Oui. She should. But... I think she learned something during that nightmarish time. She rarely drinks whisky and when she does, it is heavily diluted with soda. I think she has calculated exactly how much she can drink before succumbing and never allows herself to go over that amount. Well,'' Solange continued shrugging, ''at least, hardly ever.''
Rhiannon's eyes narrowed. ''What do you mean?'' A sudden thought struck her. ''Oh, God!,'' she exclaimed. ''Is she... has she... is Lina all right?''
Solange replied matter-of-factly, ''When you left it was devastating, Miss Rhiannon. I told you, Lady Lina is not as strong as you think. When I returned from walking Fyvie, she had already been at the whiskey and had drunk quite a lot of it. I know she had more than a bottle.''
Tears trickled down Rhiannon's cheeks. ''Is she all right? Please, Solange, tell me!''
''She is in bed, sleeping. Other than a few cuts, she is fine, physically. Emotionally, mentally, I do not know. Of course, she will have a terrible head in the morning, but she was sick and threw up most of what she drank, thank God. Otherwise, she might have died of alcohol poisoning.''
Rhiannon stood. ''I... I... I have to go to her, Solange!'' She was crying now, from shock and guilt. ''I didn't know! Oh, if only she'd told me!''
Solange stood up also and put a comforting hand on Rhiannon's shoulder. ''Go to her, Miss Rhiannon. I know you love her and she loves you. Go and talk to her.''
Rhiannon hurried from the room, distractedly telling Fyvie to ''Stay!'' when the wolfhound would have followed.
Solange watched her go, then went over and put her hand on Fyvie's head. ''Come along, mon petite,'' she said, ''Let us see if the bed in this room is as comfortable as the other."
"No, no, cherie,'' she continued
as Fyvie whined and scratched the closed door, ''your mistresses will
need privacy for a time. Come, little one. We will sleep, and then we
will eat, and we will see what tomorrow brings.''
Rhiannon stood outside the hotel room door, twisting the strings of her evening purse in her hands. She raised one hand as if to knock, hesitating. Finally, she turned the doorknob and stepped inside, closing the door behind her.
Broken glass crunched underfoot as she walked through the sitting room. The air was heavy with the smell of whiskey and vomit. Gagging, Rhiannon hastily crossed to the window and threw it open, inhaling the cool night air with relief. Her eyes widened as she turned back to the room and took in the destruction; virtually every piece of furniture in the sitting room was in pieces, there were holes in the walls, the carpet was a wreck...
The only thing left untouched was a small table. Crossing the room, Rhiannon realized that the package on top of the table must contain the jewelry she had purchased that afternoon. Her heart lurched painfully in her chest and she caught her breath with a gasp.
Rhiannon raised a trembling hand to her hair, grimacing when she suddenly noticed the tangle of strawberry-blonde curls and braids that hung crazily from her head. Calmly, she removed the pins and ribbons that had held the ruined coiffure in place and finger-combed her hair until it looked nearly decent.
Finishing, Rhiannon knew she could delay no longer. She went to the closed bedroom door and rapped softly. ''Lina?'' she asked tentatively. ''May I come in?''
Only silence greeted this effort. Taking a deep breath, Rhiannon opened the door and walked in slowly, allowing her eyes time to adjust to the dark.
The bedroom was quiet except for the rasp of Lina's breathing. Rhiannon went over to the bed and pulled back the layers of mosquito netting.
Lina lay there, her face drawn and pinched even in sleep, curled up around Rhiannon's pillow, clutching it closely. Rhiannon's heart gave another lurch when she saw the bandages wound around Lina's palms.
Softly, gently, Rhiannon sat down on the edge of the bed, unwilling to disturb Lina's rest. She reached out one hand and laid it on Lina's forehead, wincing at the cold, greasy feel. The peer's luxurious black hair was tangled and oily; small beads of dirt could be seen in the creases of her neck.
Rhiannon sighed. My poor love, she thought, her heart going out to the obviously distressed woman. What have I done to you? What have you done to yourself?
Throughout the night, while Lina slept fitfully, Rhiannon sat and thought...
How can I live with her? How can I live without her? Rhiannon asked herself silently, looking down at Lina's pale face.
When she had first met Lady Evangeline after her terrifying encounter with the madman who would become known as Jack the Ripper, Rhiannon had been frightened and unsure of herself or her place in the world. Her father's suicide had plunged her into a perpetual nightmare of prostitution and poverty; her future had seemed uncertain and bleak.
But with Lina's entrance into her life - nothing had been the same. The beautiful peer had given Rhiannon a place in her household, friendship and security, and ultimately, her love.
At first, Rhiannon had tended to cling to this rock of stability she had found against such odds. But soon, when she had begun to regain her old confidence, to stretch the wings she had considered clipped and bound by circumstance, Lina had responded to this display of independence by trying to bind her tighter, keep her safe and wrapped in a smothering blanket of protection.
Rhiannon drew her brows together and stroked Lina's forehead. More than once she left me behind, she thought, while she worked on one of her cases. Not even having the courtesy to face me sometimes. Even after I confronted her, there were always excuses. Lina gave her word to me time and time again, and broke it as soon as she felt it was expedient. I had to leave; I'd given her the ultimatum not once, but a few times, and still she refused to believe... until now.
Lina mumbled, stirring; Rhiannon soothed her, stroking her love'rs face until Lina fell quieted.
Although I understand why she feels the way she does, how do I make her understand that I resent it, truly resent it, when she runs off on one of her damnable missions and leaves me behind like a token bride? Rhiannon sighed and picked up one of Lina's bandaged hands, cradling it in her own.
The ring she had given Lina flashed with subdued amethyst and pale blue topaz fire in the uncertain moonlight... and Rhiannon was reminded of her wedding vows.
To have and to hold, from this day forward, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live...
Lina had accepted her vow joyfully and later gave Rhiannonvows of her own. I love her, Rhiannon thought, and I cannot live without a place at her side; but I also cannot live knowing that at any moment, she may go off and leave me again... if she died on one of her jaunts, how could I go on living?
Conflict stabbed at her. So which word do I break? My wedding vows or my promise to leave? How do I reconcile my feelings? Knowing that Lina might die if I leave her, how do I dare do so?
Rhiannon wasn't sure if she was entirely comfortable with the thought of being so necessary to someone else's survival. It seemed another binding, another cord to tie her to Lina...
With a sudden flash of insight, Rhiannon drew her breath in a gasp and stared, eyes wide, as an idle thought silently voiced within the depths of her own mind returned in a haunting echo.
How could I go on living?, she thought in amazement. How could I? Although I've said that I couldn't live without her, I believed it to be merely fine words, loving compliments meant to please and flatter. I never before studied the meaning behind that phrase...
Rhiannon stared down into Lina's face and an aching pit of loneliness opened up within her as she thought of a future without her beloved. She sensed the truth at last. I really could not live without her, she thought. If I lose her, I lose my world and everything in it. I lose myself.
Rhiannon rose and went to the window, ignoring the sharp twinges of pain in her legs from sitting too long.
After a while, she sat back down on the edge of the bed and leaned over, gently kissing Lina's forehead.
''Well, love,'' she said softly, ''I can't live without you, so I suppose I will have to live with you. I'll never, ever leave you again, Lina. I can't. Part of me died as well when I walked out that door, and I'm not sure I could survive another night like this. I can't bear to be parted from you...''
Silently, Rhiannon continued, But how do I convince you not to smother me with good intentions? How do I make you understand that my place is, and must be, at your side? I must think...
When the first pale shards of dawn began to creep through the window, Rhiannon had her answer.
With a snort, Lina woke up, her eyes swiveling to and fro in confusion, blinking rapidly. She moaned as bright sunlight struck at her eyes like knives, and that small sound was enough to make her wince and put a hand to her head.
Demons... she thought... I have demons tunneling with jagged spades through my brain.
Her mouth was as parched as a blazing desert and Lina moaned again, squeezing her eyes tightly shut against the far too brilliant light.
Blindly, she reached out her hand and fumbled around the table for the water jar and glass she knew were there. A full glass of cool water was pushed into her hand and she gulped it thirstily, then lay back on the pillows with a sigh. Solange's voice was barely a whisper but it sliced through Lina's head like a buzzsaw. ''Madame is unwell?'' the maid asked.
Lina cracked her eyelids open a hair and glared. ''Madame is quite unwell,'' she croaked. Running a shaky hand through her hair, she was mildly amazed when her head didn't fall off and roll about the floor. ''Go away, Solange. I will call you if I need you.''
''Very well. But you have a visitor waiting for you in the sitting room,'' Solange replied as she left the room. Before the door could close, Lina's harsh, ''Let them bloody well wait!'' floated out and Solange stifled an impertinent giggle.
Alone, Lina lay in the bed, her hand absently going out to the other side, seeking Rhiannon, and finding nothing but cold emptiness.
Tears welled up in her eyes but she blinked them back, putting up her other hand to press against her chest where a sudden pain throbbed behind her breastbone. My dear Rhiannon is gone, she thought numbly, it was not a nightmare, it was not a delusion. I have driven my love away.
Guilt lashed at her and Lina welcomed the pain, feeling it was nothing more than she deserved.
Although Rhiannon had threatened to leave more than once, truthfully, Lina had not believed she actually would. Her own need for Rhiannon was so great that it had blinded her; she had actually believed that no matter what she did, no matter how badly she behaved, Rhiannon would always be there, a constant satellite to her own more spectacular orbit.
But she has proved she does not need me as I need her, Lina thought, new tears sparkling in her emerald eyes. She is her own woman and I am just now acknowledging the truth of that fact. I have treated her very badly; I allowed my own fears to cause this breach. And it is entirely my fault.
Victoire's death had scarred Lina deeply; this she knew. And although she had, after her stay in the sanitarium, understood that what she had felt for the beautiful Frenchwoman had not been love, just infatuation, still...
I caused Victoire's death, Lina thought. No one else was to blame in that, only me. And I desperately wanted to keep from repeating the same mistake. Rhiannon's love is everything to me and if I ever lost her...
But I already have.
The thought came unbidden and Lina began to weep, her body convulsed by silent, racking sobs. She cried with all the remorse and gut-wrenching guilt of the truly penitent.
Turning her streaming eyes up to Heaven, Lina did something she had not done since she was a child. In the depths of her mind, Lina sent up a silent prayer to the God of her youth, begging for another chance, pleading that she be allowed to see Rhiannon just once more, vowing that she would put away her fears if only her love would return - but she no longer had a child's faith in a benevolent God, and Lina dared not hope, but also dared not to hope.
''Lina?'' a soft voice said.
It was a voice she thought she would never hear again; it blasted through her pain and heartbreak like a lightning bolt.
''R-r-r-rhiannon?'' Lina whimpered, swallowing her tears and sitting bolt upright, much to the detriment of her head. Clutching her temples with one hand and swallowing sudden nausea, the peer struggled to push aside the folds of filmy netting. ''Rhiannon?''
''Yes, love,'' Rhiannon answered, hastening across the room.
Lina flailed at the mosquito netting in desperation; Rhiannon quickly pushed it away and stood by the side of the bed, a small smile on her heart-shaped face.
Lina's eyes were wide. ''Rhiannon?'' she repeated, staring at the woman she thought she had lost forever. ''Are... are you here?''
''I'm here, Lina, I'm right here,'' came the reply.
Trembling on the knife edge between happiness and profound relief, Lina started to cry again. ''Oh, Rhiannon!'' she wailed, holding out shaking hands, wanting to touch the woman silhouetted against the sun, to hold her and know this was not a dream.
Rhiannon sat down on the edge of the bed and enfolded Lina in her arms, nestling the peer's head in the crook of her shoulder, rocking her lover back and forth. ''Yes, yes, I'm here,'' she said soothingly as Lina clutched her and wept. ''I'm here, love.''
After a while, the flood of tears abated; Lina sat up a bit, touching Rhiannon's face in wonder. ''I have never before believed in the effectiveness of prayer,'' Lina whispered, ''but I now owe my family's clergyman an apology.''
Rhiannon was puzzled by this statement but decided to let it pass. She wiped the tears from Lina's wet face and smiled. ''How do you feel?'' she asked.
Lina sighed and nestled her head against Rhiannon's shoulder again. ''I am well, my dear, now that you are here.'' A thought struck her and she sat up again, her eyes fearful. ''Are you staying?'' she asked, searching Rhiannon's face, prepared to beg, grovel if necessary, anything to keep this answered prayer from slipping away.
''Yes. I'm not leaving you,'' Rhiannon replied, then had to deal with a fresh spate of tears from her overjoyed lover.
After she'd gotten Lina calmed down and resting against the pillows again (although Lina still gripped her hand, unwilling to let it go), Rhiannon said seriously, ''Love, we have to talk.''
Lina's head was throbbing in time to her pulse, but she wanted to say something she was longing to speak aloud so she ignored the pain. ''My dear, there is something I must tell you. I realize now the true extent of my behavior towards you. I know I have said these words, or some such similar ones before, but I beg you to believe me this time, Rhiannon: I will never do anything to cause you distress again. You are my dear, my most precious love, and I do not want to lose you. If it comes to a choice between allowing you to make your own decisions and leading you into danger or losing you altogether... well, I can only say that I will never leave you behind again.''
Rhiannon nodded. There was a depth of sincerity in Lina's words that had not been there before when they'd had this old argument.
Lina continued, ''You were perfectly justified...,'' but Rhiannon interrupted.
''Yes, you're right. I was justified in my actions, Lina. You did break your word and I've warned you often enough about that. But,'' she continued, ''you kept important information from me, too. Had you told me about Victoire, I would have tried, at least, to be a little more understanding, a little more empathetic to your views.''
''Victoire? How did you hear about Victoire?'' Lina asked, surprised.
Instead of answering, Rhiannon stood up and began struggling with the buttons of her white morning gown. She eventually managed to get enough buttons undone so that the dress slid off her shoulders into a puddle of soft cotton around her feet, followed by petticoats and all the other lacy underthings she wore beneath her gowns. At last, Rhiannon was covered only by the glory of her red-gold hair. ''Move over,'' she said shortly.
Lina hastily complied. Rhiannon slid into the bed, turning over on her side to face the peer. ''Now come here,'' Rhiannon said; Lina snuggled into Rhiannon's embrace and they both sighed. For a while, the two women just held each other, comforted by the heartbeat that echoed their own; being together felt so right, the pain of separation was like losing half a soul.
''Solange told me about Victoire,'' Rhiannon said at last, stroking Lina's hair. ''She told me everything, love. Everything except why you didn't tell me about it.''
Lina sniffled. Her voice was muffled against Rhiannon's throat when she replied, ''I did not want you to be hurt by it.''
''So you decided to protect me again, hm?'' Rhiannon sighed. ''Listen to me, Lina. I love you. I love you more than anything or anyone else on this earth and I want to share everything with you. When you keep these things from me, especially when you know it may cause trouble later on down the road, it hurts me more than if you'd have just told me in the first place.''
Lina was shocked. She pulled her face away from Rhiannon's throat and looked into the other woman's pale blue eyes. ''I... I never considered that,'' she whispered. ''Oh, God,'' she groaned, ''I have been a fool!'' Lina closed her eyes, slumping back, but Rhiannon pulled her close again.
''Lina, if I'd known what happened... let's just say that now I understand why you're so protective. God knows if something like that had happened to me, I would certainly feel an instinctive need to protect those I loved. I'm not saying I'll condone it - I most certainly will not! And I take you at your word that you'll never do it again - but I do understand.''
Lina opened her eyes, those emerald orbs made more brilliant by unshed tears. ''Then you...,'' she began; her voice trailed off. She feared to voice her doubts lest they become all too true.
''I will never leave you again,'' Rhiannon said solemnly. ''Never. No matter what happens, I will always be here, love, I promise. And I trust you to stop protecting me so much. But in return, you must promise me something as well. This time, you will keep your promise. Understand?''
Lina nodded mutely. The evening had been a nightmare from start to finish; from Rhiannon discovering her sneaking back into the hotel, to the drinking binge, to her blurred remembrances of fighting with Solange. Lina flushed guiltily. She had behaved very badly and knew it, but her fright had taught her a lesson. As Lina had told Rhiannon with words that came directly from her heart - she would never break her word again.
Rhiannon continued, ''You must promise me that if anything - and I mean anything - ever happens to me, you will not take to drink or otherwise do yourself an injury. Do I have your word?''
''Yes,'' Lina whispered, surprised. That had been the last thing she expected.
''Furthermore, I want you to stop drinking. No brandy, no whiskey, no after dinner port, nothing! Lina, I want to grow old with you and I have no intention of losing you to the demon rum. Promise me you'll never, ever touch another drink again.''
This was something altogether different. Part of Lina wanted to agree, to say anything to keep from losing her beloved again, but she knew that if she lied, this Heaven-sent second chance might not come again. ''I cannot promise that, my dear,'' she said, and closed her eyes, waiting for the blow.
Again, to Lina's surprise, Rhiannon did not react in the expected manner. ''Well, can you at least promise me to try? Please, Lina. I only ask this out of concern; I don't want to lose you.''
Lina opened her eyes. ''I...,'' she began, then stopped. Rhiannon deserved to know the truth.
''My dear,'' she said softly, ''Ever since that terrible time after... after Victoire's death,'' she managed to get out with an effort, ''I have craved drink. I do not mean that I occasionally wish to indulge; I mean that every day the bottle calls me with a siren's song that is difficult to resist. It is shameful, I know, as shameful as Holmes' cocaine habit, but there it is. I will probably have this craving for the rest of my life, but I have striven to keep it under control. When... when I thought I had lost you, the pain was so great that I tried to drown it, vanquish it with my old comforter.'' She stopped, unsure of what else to say.
How could she explain? Each day of her life, Lina struggled with this personal demon. She would never stop wanting alcohol, she knew that. The indulgences - a glass of whiskey-and-soda, a snifter of brandy - served to keep the howling abyss at bay. She had enough formidable willpower to be able to stop; when she was in her ''moods'' she kept careful control over how much she consumed, although it was never enough - she always wanted more, and more, and more.
Rhiannon made encouraging noises and Lina decided she would at least try.
''I do not permit myself the luxury of drunkenness,'' Lina said with a slight shudder. ''You cannot possibly imagine, my dear, how awful that time was for me. I was barely human, a raving animal who would do anything for a drink. To my everlasting shame, I even attempted to subvert poor Holmes to my undeniable need. I was very nearly mad, and I thank God that Holmes and dear Solange stayed by me. Without them, I believe I would have died.''
Placing a bandaged hand against Rhiannon's face, Lina continued, ''Much like Holmes and his cocaine, I keep my cravings under strict control. But when you left... my dear, I wanted nothing more than to die. I sought oblivion in the closest source - the liquor cabinet. If Solange had not stopped me, I may very well have succeeded in willing my death. I cannot live without you.''
There, Lina thought. It is out. I have said it and there is no turning back.
Lina was ashamed of her neediness. She had always thought of herself as strong, capable, enduring. But there were particular cracks in her emotional armort and Rhiannon was one of them. Without her wife, Lina was lost. Rhiannon was a strong anchor that tied the peer to the world, a necessity without which she could not, and did not, want to live. Lina had feared to tell Rhiannon this, afraid that the other woman would feel trapped, ringed about by her selfish need.
Rhiannon nodded. ''I know exactly how you feel, love,'' she replied. ''You are my drug of choice and if anything ever happened to you... well, first I would avenge you and then I would join you. I can't live without you, either.''
Both women were silent for a moment, then Rhiannon sighed. ''We will probably argue, we will most likely fight, but I'll never leave you again, Lina. Just keep reminding yourself that I am capable - you yourself have seen to that. You must stop coddling me, love! You keep telling me that you won't do it any more and when I turn around, you're doing it again. You know my feelings on the subject! And besides, I hate it when we quarrel.''
Lina squeezed Rhiannon tightly. ''Believe me, my dear, I despise arguments as well!,'' she said with a shiver. Having come so close to losing Rhiannon, Lina knew she would never, ever break her word again. ''I will do better, I swear. However, I will extract the same promise from you that you have from me: If anything should happen to me, you will not do yourself an injury. I would be incapable of action otherwise.''
''I promise,'' Rhiannon replied - and crossed her fingers behind her back.
The indistinct murmurs of their voices continued on for a while, then silence fell as the two women fell asleep in one another's arms.
The safragi removed his ear from the door, his eyes narrowing in thought.
Shuffling down the hall, he stopped once to pluck a dead palm leaf from
the potted plant in the corner, folding it up and thrusting it into the
bosom of his robe. He grinned evilly - and continued on.
Over a very late breakfast hastily concocted by the hotel cook at Solange's request, Rhiannon said with a forced air of brightness, ''So, Lina, where did you go last night?''
Lina's fork dropped on the plate with a clatter. She winced; her head was pounding, she felt nauseous and it seemed as if her mouth were filled with camel dung. ''Er... must we discuss the subject now, my dear? I am unwell.''
''If you mean you have a bloody great head, I believe it!'' Rhiannon retorted. ''If you're not going to eat those eggs, pass them over.''
With a shudder, Lina surrendered her plate, keeping her eyes averted from the spectacle of Rhiannon tucking in with a will. How she consumes so much food and remains so slender is a mystery to me, the peer thought, then gulped as a new wave of nausea made her stomach churn. While she and Rhiannon had been talking, her stomach had behaved; now it made its displeasure known emphatically.
Solange appeared, holding a silver platter. On the tray was a glass of some evil red substance, thick and vile smelling. Lina's sensitive stomach flopped over when she caught a whiff. ''Good Lord!'' she exclaimed, clutching her temples as a spike of pain shot through her head. More quietly, Lina said, ''What the Devil is that foul stuff?''
''For your head, Lady Lina,'' Solange answered pertly. The maid was dressed in a simple dress of yellow Egyptian cotton with a beribboned bib of lace. ''My grandfather's secret recipe for indulgence.''
Lina shuddered again. Waving a hand, she said, ''Take it away, curse you! There is no possible way I could keep it down. And the smell is making my head worse.''
Rhiannon wiped her plate with a piece of roll. ''Does it work, Solange?'' she asked.
''Oui. All my relatives swear by it.''
''Then you'll take it,'' Rhiannon said firmly to the aghast peer. ''I want to do some more shopping before we leave on our tour tomorrow, and I can't do that while you're moping around in the room. And we are going to discuss where you were and what you were doing last night.''
When Lina carefully shook her head in mute protest, Rhiannon continued, ''You'll drink it or I'll hold your nose and pour it into you.''
Lina stared. ''Surely you would not...''
''I would and I will if you don't drink it.'' Rhiannon popped the bit of roll into her mouth and chewed vigorously. Swallowing, she said, ''Just take your medicine like a good girl and I'll give you a treat.''
Lina said sullenly, ''What sort of treat?'' She peered at Rhiannon with suspicious green eyes.
''There is something I neglected to give you last night. I want to rectify that error before we depart for the souk.'' Rhiannon's pale blue eyes twinkled.
Lina's eyes widened.
She snatched the glass from Solange's tray and downed it in a single gulp, ignoring the maid's snicker. Banging the empty glass down on the table, she gagged, clutching her belly. The hangover recipe had burned all the way down and tasted as terrible as it smelled. For a moment, it was debatable which would explode first - the peer's head or her stomach - and she struggled to retain control of both. After a few moments, however, the nausea subsided, and her headache began to fade.
Lina sat up, tentatively touching her head. ''I do believe it is working, Solange,'' she said in wonder. ''If you were to patent this remarkable medicine, you would be a wealthy woman indeed.''
Solange smiled. ''With your permission, Lady Lina,'' she replied, ''I will be going out this morning to continue our arrangements.''
With a glance at Rhiannon, Lina nodded. ''Yes. Do that. Rhiannon and I will join you later.''
As Solange sauntered out of the room, Rhiannon looked at Lina sharply. ''Do these 'arrangements' have something to do with you sneaking out last night?''
''Er...yes, my dear,'' Lina said. She thought a moment, then continued, ''Our anniversary is coming soon. One of the reasons I wanted to come to Cairo - besides, of course, wanting to show you this incredible land of antiquity - was that I received word of an article which I believed would make a suitable present for you. That was the reason I was out last night - I was cementing some negotiations.''
Rhiannon stared. ''You mean... why didn't you just tell me what was going on?''
''Because it was a surprise, my dear. And...'' Her voice trailed off as she took a sip of tea, obviously stalling for time.
''And?'' Rhiannon raised a brow and waited.
''Well, I do not wish to give away too much, thus spoiling the surprise, but I will tell you that the object in question was most likely illegally obtained. My negotiations have required a certain amount of secrecy, and Solange's contacts in this area have proved invaluable.''
''I see.'' Rhiannon looked thoughtful. Solange's family had been involved in the smuggling business in France for more than two hundred years, and despite the fact that the maid no longer dabbled in the ''family business,'' she still retained much knowledge and knew many of the individuals engaged in the smuggling of European and Asian antiquities.
''Lina, why didn't you just tell me this last night?'' Rhiannon asked. ''If you had, we could have avoided the entire mess.''
''Would you have listened?'' Lina retorted, then flushed. ''My dear, forgive me. My mood is still somewhat uncertain.''
''No... no, you're right,'' Rhiannon replied. ''Last night, I was so upset... you were hurt and then the Doctor found that scorpion...''
Lina suddenly leaned forward, swift as a striking snake. ''What scorpion?'' she asked intently.
Now it was Rhiannon's turn to flush. ''Oh! Well, you see...,'' and Rhiannon explained her dinner companion, Dr. Stanford Burton, and his discovery of a deadly scorpion in the bouquet she received from a young boy. When she finished, Rhiannon stood and walked across the room, retrieving her evening purse. Opening it, she fished out the cambric handkerchief that held the dead scorpion and held it out for Lina's inspection.
The peer took the handkerchief and peered at the remains of the arachnid as Rhiannon sat back down. ''Yes, he was correct,'' she said after a moment. ''If this creature had stung you in the face or neck - and considering women's propensity for sniffing bouquets, this event would be highly likely to occur - you would have been dead within a matter of moments.''
She laid the handkerchief down on the table. ''My dear, why did you not tell me of this last night?'' Lina was clearly upset, so Rhiannon hastened to explain.
''Lina, how could I? There was so much happening! To be perfectly frank, I completely forgot about it.''
Lina leaned back in her chair. She was clad in a simple cotton robe, purchased in the souk, patterned with crimson dyed monkeys, palms and camels. Stretching her legs out in front of her, she said, ''I can certainly understand, my dear. However, now that we know this Jackal is nothing loathe to make both of us victims of murder, I suggest we take precautions. Before I left last night, I took the opportunity to question the safragi. I am satisfied that he knows nothing of the note.''
''Who can this Jackal be?'' Rhiannon asked. ''I don't understand why he would be after us.'' A thought struck her. ''Could it have to do with the present you're getting for me?''
Lina looked at Rhiannon, clearly impressed. ''My dear, the thought never crossed my mind! However, now that you have mentioned it, the possibility must be examined. We must also hold a council of war with an old friend, but I believe we shall find him close at hand.''
She rose, and held out one hand. ''That can wait. First, you and I have important business which requires our immediate attention.''
''What do you mean, 'close friend?''' Rhiannon asked, taking Lina's hand and rising. ''Who could that be?''
Lina gave her an enigmatic smile. ''I shall enlighten you later, my dear.'' She licked her lips and smiled wider. ''Now, what about the treat you promised me?''
''I have it right here on this table,'' Rhiannon replied, giggling at Lina's crestfallen expression. It was perfectly obvious that the ''treat'' Lina expected had nothing to do with gifts and everything to do with amour.
She picked up the package that held the jewelry she had purchased the previous day in the Khan el Khaleel. ''Do you remember that necklace?'' Rhiannon asked.
''Yes,'' Lina said warily.
''Well, not only did I buy the necklace, but also a matching bracelet and earrings. I thought they'd look perfect on you... in a certain light.''
''Oh?'' Lina's headache was completely gone, her stomach behaving itself once more, and Rhiannon was back - nothing would ruin her good mood. ''Let me see this necklace and refresh my memory. Perhaps I could be persuaded to model it for you,'' she said playfully, taking the package from Rhiannon's hand. She struggled with the strings that were wrapped around the brown paper but they had been tied too tightly.
''Curse those shopkeepers!'' Lina swore. ''They know only two methods of wrapping parcels. Either they use several yards of string accompanied by Gordian knots, or else everything is wrapped so loosely that one's goods are scattered from one end of the souk to the other! Excuse me, my dear. I believe I have a pair of scissors in the bath chamber.''
Lina walked away. Rhiannon waited... and waited... and waited...
Wondering what was going on, she walked into their bedroom. Spying Lina standing in the door of the bath chamber, she said, ''What's taking so long, love?''
Lina hissed softly, ''Stay back!''
But Rhiannon had already come up behind her - close enough to see the swaying shadow on the wall.
"My dear,'' Lina whispered, ''Walk away slowly... and fetch my sidearm from the dresser drawer.''
Rhiannon carefully peered around Lina's arm. An enormous cobra swayed in the middle of the bathroom floor, its hood fully extended, dead eyes locked on the peer. Its forked tongue flickered and the snake hissed softly, head undulating back and forth.
''Rhiannon,'' Lina breathed, not daring to move a muscle, ''get my sidearm. Now.''
But Rhiannon was reaching with agonizing slowness into the pocket of her wide-legged trousers, and pulled out her little pearl-handled revolver, a Christmas present from Sherlock Holmes.
Sweat beading up on her forehead, mouth drawn into a frown of concentration, Rhiannon carefully and with infinite patience, inch by inch, extended her arm beneath Lina's, taking careful aim... simultaneously, her other hand rose to grip her lover's shoulder.
Bang! Bang! The little pistol spat fire at the cobra and Rhiannon yanked Lina backwards with all her might at the same time, pulling her out of the room. Both women fell to the floor, Rhiannon beneath her heavier partner. The cobra writhed out of the bath chamber, flopping onto the carpet near Lina's feet.
With a burst of hysterical strength, Rhiannon managed to shove Lina off herself. Leaping to her feet, she snatched the wooden staff that leaned against the wall and with an incoherent scream, began flailing at the serpent in a frenzy, beating it over and over again, her pale blue eyes burning with fury.
''My dear,'' Lina drawled from her position on the floor as she watched Rhiannon's efforts, ''I do believe the creature is dead. Further attempts to subdue it will only result in an indelible stain on good master Buehler's carpeting.''
Panting, Rhiannon smacked the dead serpent a few more times and let the staff drop to the floor. The cobra was now an unidentifiable mass of bloody shreds and tiny splinters of bone. Then Rhiannon, face pale as milk, knelt on the floor, scrabbling weakly at Lina's bare feet.
''I do not believe the serpent struck me, my dear,'' Lina said. It was clear from her tone that she was highly amused. ''Nevertheless, had he done so, you have already extracted a suitable revenge.''
Rhiannon raised blazing eyes and glared at the peer. ''Lina,'' she gasped, still trying to catch her breath, ''If you make one more witty remark, I'm going to strangle you myself!''
''But you did an excellent job, Rhiannon! I am impressed. I believe the cobra's death throes are what caused him to make an unauthorized entrance into our bedroom... not any lack of marksmanship on your part. I distinctly saw your bullets strike him in the head. You are to be commended; few experienced men could hit a target so small, and moving besides.''
Rhiannon sat back , calming a little, and wiped the sweat off her face. ''How do you suppose it got in here?''
Lina sat up with a frown. ''I suppose it could be a coincidence,'' she said. ''We are in a desert region; cobras and other beasties - such as scorpions - have been known to enter dwellings, chasing mice or seeking warmth.''
''However...,'' Rhiannon continued Lina's train of thought, her fright completely gone as her brain put connections together with lightning speed, ''In light of the two other attempts on our lives, I suppose a harmless coincidence is too much to ask for?''
''Precisely.'' Lina rose and offered her hand to Rhiannon, drawing the smaller woman up. Putting her arms around the strawberry blonde, Lina pulled her close and whispered, ''I have dispatched a note to our friend. He will be meeting us on the terrace for tea at four o'clock. And we must meet with Solange soon... but there is something I wish to give you without delay.''
Rhiannon tilted her head back so she could gaze into Lina's brilliant emerald green eyes. ''Yes?'' she asked with a small smile. Her heart had hammered in her chest when she'd thought the cobra had struck her beloved, but now it beat to a far different rhythm...
The look of love and adoration in Lina's eyes was unmistakable. ''This...,'' she said softly, bending her head and pressing her lips to Rhiannon's own.
It was not a passionate kiss; it was an affirmation, a pledge of love, and Rhiannon put her arms around Lina's shoulders and returned that pledge with her own. For a long moment, they held one another, experiencing a timeless sense of belonging and comfort and trust.
At last, Lina sighed. ''Come along, my dear,'' she murmured regretfully against Rhiannon's lips, ''I must get dressed. Solange will be waiting impatiently in the souk and Fyvie requires some attention as well.''
''Oh, all right,'' Rhiannon said with a twinkle in her eyes, touching her forefinger to Lina's mouth. ''I'll see to Fyvie; you get dressed. I'll send a note to the front desk and get them to clean up this horrid snake mess... ugh!'' She backed away and smoothed the front of her white shirtwaist, tucked into pale tan Turkish trousers. She had pulled her hair up from her face and twisted it into two braids that hung down her back, giving her a schoolgirlish air.
Rhiannon walked from the bedroom, her lips still tingling from that wonderful
kiss - leaving Lina to scramble in the wardrobe for her own trouser costume
of dark Buffalo red.
In the antika district, the place of antiquities shops in the souk, Lina led Rhiannon to a dark doorway. A bit of old carpet had been tacked across the entrance, and unlike most of the other shops, this one boasted no mastaba in the front for customers.
''This is the shop of Selim el Atti. Please, my dear, I would ask that you occupy yourself in the front of the shop while Solange and I conclude our negotiations in the rear with Selim. I only ask because this present is supposed to be a surprise.'' Lina's voice held a note of pleading.
''Of course, love,'' Rhiannon answered, enormously pleased that Lina had considered her feelings. This is a good start, she thought to herself. ''I'll just poke about.''
They entered the room and saw Solange engaged in rapid banter with Selim. The language they spoke sounded Arabic to Rhiannon's ears, but in actuality, the two were discoursing in the siim issaagha, the specialized language of the gold and silver sellers of Cairo - similar to the thieves' cant of seventeenth century London.
The conversation broke off as Lina and Rhiannon entered. ''Sabakhum bil-kheir, good morning, Selim,'' Lina said. ''Are your children well? How is your eldest son, Mustafa?''
Selim beamed. He was a man of medium height with dark, liquid eyes, and wore the indigo blue turban of an Egyptian Copt or Christian. ''Assalaam alaikum, Sitt Askeri, peace be unto you and may the One True God bless you. Mustafa is a lazy, ungrateful boy but he is still the pride of my old age,'' Selim answered in excellent English. ''And how are you?''
Lina returned the man's smile. ''I am well, I am well,'' she said. In a whispered aside to Rhiannon, she murmured, ''The Egyptians have a nickname for me. Sitt Askeri means Lady Warrior.''
Before Rhiannon could do more than nod at this information, Selim's gaze swung to her and he said, ''And you are well, Ibna'athyr?''
''What?'' Rhiannon's brows drew together in a frown and a heartbeat later, so did Lina's.
''Why do you call her the Daughter of Sekhmet?'' Lina asked.
''Because, sitt, yesterday in the marketplace, she defended you with the heart of a lioness protecting her cubs. The fellahin spoke of nothing else; it was the talk of the souk. They believe she is the avatar of the protector and the lady of war all in one, and are much awed.'' His eyes twinkled. ''Of course, as a Christian, I do not believe these things myself.''
''Of course not,'' Lina replied warily. She would have to talk to Rhiannon about this but it would have to wait. Solange came to stand with the two women. ''Now, Selim, how is your very aged and much honored mother?''
For what seemed an eternity, Lina and Selim engaged in the time-honored tradition of fahddling (gossiping) and exchanging compliments before any real business could be discussed. At last, Solange, Selim and Lina withdrew to the back of the shop, leaving Rhiannon to explore the crowded interior of the front alone.
There were rickety shelves crammed with merchandise: pots; small bits of plaster torn from the walls of tombs that were painted with symbols and figures; scarabs and the burial figurines called shabwati; bones dark with tarry bitumen, some still bearing tattered wrappings. Rhiannon prowled around, poking, prodding, picking up this and examining that, until she pulled aside a rotting piece of cloth to reveal a small ivory box - and caught her breath.
The box was so elaborately pierced and carved it resembled stiffened lace. Opening the yellowed top, Rhiannon saw that nestled within the interior was a pendant made of gold - an open eye whose pupil flashed with dark red carnelian. Turning the pendant over, she realized the carnelian backing was fashioned into the shape of a scarab beetle, and holding it close to her face, saw that the beetle's cunningly made carapace was covered with tiny symbols.
She put the pendant back into the box and shut the lid. This was one item she intended to purchase herself. It would make an excellent anniversary present for her beloved; the open eye seemed so perfect, almost seeming to suggest: 'I see all, no secrets can be hidden from me.' It was infinitely appropriate for an investigator of Lina's caliber.
Solange came out from the back room. ''Lady Lina is having the item wrapped now and will be bringing it to the hotel shortly, Miss Rhiannon. She asked me to escort you back to Shepherd's. There is still plenty of time before your appointment this afternoon.'' She giggled. ''Shall we go shopping?''
Rhiannon chuckled. ''Of course, I'd love to do more shopping. Only, I particularly wanted this box.''
Solange picked up the box and examined it with an expert eye, then opened it and took in the pendant. She whistled appreciatively. ''This must have just come in,'' she said. ''Ordinarily, an item of this workmanship would have already been on its way to a collector. You have a good eye, Miss Rhiannon. Excuse me a moment...'' Solange disappeared back into the rear of the shop, carrying the box with her.
Rhiannon waited, and Solange came back in a few minutes. ''Taken care of,'' she said with a broad smile. ''Hah! I knew that old crocodile Selim hadn't seen the box yet, but he didn't dare admit it and didn't even open it! I persuaded him to throw it in as a bonus, which, considering the price Lady Lina paid for the st... the other thing,'' she continued, stumbling over her words a little, ''is a true bargain. For you, at any rate.''
The two women left the shop while Rhiannon puzzled over the meaning of Solange's near verbal misstep. What could her own anniversary present be? However, these speculations were overthrown by the sheer delight of shopping, with the French maid quick to point out the best merchandise and steering Rhiannon away from shoddy goods.
Rhiannon took time making her selections, wanting everything to be perfect. A pretty mirror and comb set for the maid, Buttercup; a basket full of exotic spices (and a brightly dyed robe) for Cook; enormous half-moon swords for Bob and Henry, the footmen; a fez and a box of Turkish cigarettes for Jackson; an exotically embroidered smoking jacket for Holmes; and for her good friend Dr. Watson, a small piece of amethyst carved into the shape of a caduceus - the symbol of the Egyptian god of medicine, Thoth.
Try as she might, Rhiannon could not persuade Solange to allow her to purchase her a present; but Rhiannon saw the maid lingering over a collection of glittering knives set out on a table under an awning. Asking Solange to get her a cup of lemonade from a nearby vendor, Rhiannon quickly located the knife the maid had been admiring.
Not having time for lengthy negotiations, Rhiannon waved a fifty pound note beneath the Egyptian's nose and was gratified when the shop keeper grinned and tucked the money away beneath his robe, handing her the knife with a small bow. Rhiannon slid the knife into a package she was carrying just as Solange came back, holding a sweating cup.
''You seem a little flushed, Miss Rhiannon,'' Solange said with concern as Rhiannon gulped the lemonade. ''Perhaps we should return to the hotel.''
Rhiannon nodded in agreement, glad the maid had not seen her newest purchase, and they set off to Shepheard's, pushing their way through the crowded marketplace.
As they rounded a corner into an alleyway, however, Rhiannon was beset by a vague sense of unease. There was something wrong. It was too deserted... too quiet.
A man stepped out of the shadows close to them. He was big and broad shouldered, with strings of greasy hair that tumbled from beneath the edge of his ill-wrapped turban. His robe was stained and spotted with food and palm wine. Pulling a curved knife from the folds of his blue and white striped djebellah, he grinned, revealing rotten teeth.
Before Rhiannon could react, the packages Solange had been carrying hit the ground, sending up a tiny cloud of dust. The maid snapped her wrist down and the hilt of a knife smacked into her waiting palm from the hidden sheath strapped to her forearm. Swiftly gathering the folds of her skirt and tucking them up to free her legs, Solange's eyes never left their attacker's face.
The man grinned even more hugely at the sight of this small European woman preparing to defy him. Confidently, he advanced, only to halt and shriek when Solange, in a blur of motion, sliced across his knuckles, then in the same motion, brought her knife around and down to cut deeply into his thigh.
He stumbled backward a few steps, fingering his cuts. Then he spat, ''Qahbah!'' - ''Bitch!'' - and came forward at a run.
Solange waited a moment then snapped her arm back and cast the knife in a smooth, overhand motion. The man stopped in his tracks, staring at the shivering hilt of the dagger that stood out from his chest. His dark eyes slowly slid up to lock on Solange's face. Mouth working, he toppled to the ground. The fight had lasted a bare minute.
''Solange?'' Rhiannon quavered. She had been prepared to defend herself against the man's attack but the maid had taken care of the stranger before she'd even had a chance to drop her own burdens. And with such cold-blooded efficiency that she was aghast. ''Was... was killing him truly necessary?''
Solange ruffled out her skirts then squatted down beside the ruffian and began rifling through his robe with cool unconcern. ''Oui,'' she replied, ''Would you have rather been raped and murdered?''
''No! But... what I meant was, did you have to kill him? Couldn't we have just overpowered him or something and summoned the authorities?''
Solange sniffed. ''Perhaps,'' she admitted, ''but what of the next woman he decides to harm? Besides, the Egyptian police department is corrupt, like much of this country. Think of it as making the world safer for women everywhere, Miss Rhiannon. I'm sure he has done much in his life to merit punishment, if not in this world, then the next. Hmmm... what's this?''
Rhiannon stepped closer to examine the object Solange held out. It was a piece of jet black onyx in the shape of a stylized jackal's head. The man had worn it on a string around his neck.
His mouth gaped open, unseeing eyes staring at the sky. With a sense of detachment, Rhiannon realized that Solange had already withdrawn her knife from his body; rusty stains on his robe showed that she'd cleaned the blade before replacing it.
Solange left the corpse and picked up her packages, putting the onyx charm in a pocket. ''Come, Miss Rhiannon,'' she said softly. ''We will return to the hotel. You look unwell.''
''Yes,'' Rhiannon said, moving away and joining Solange. ''Lina must hear of this as soon as possible. I'm sure she'll be glad to know that the Jackal hasn't quite finished his game yet.''
The sun, like a copper coin, blazed blindingly on the dead man they left
When Lina returned to the hotel, Rhiannon was waiting, putting the final touches on her hair.
Lina bent down and kissed the back of her lover's smooth neck, commenting, ''You look as fresh and lovely as a flower, my dear.''
Rhiannon's pale-blue eyes stared back at her in the mirror. ''I do feel better,'' she replied, ''The bath was lovely. I've had one drawn for you; I thought you'd want to wash off some sweat and dust before we go to tea.''
Lina began pulling off her clothes, letting them fall to the floor. ''The heat can be brutal, I admit. But these costumes I had Solange acquire for us are much more suitable than ordinary ladies wear.''
She disappeared into the bathing chamber and her voice floated out hollowly, ''They were developed by an archaeologist - Miss Amelia Edwards. I understand she is something of a by-word in Cairo's archaeological society.''
''Lina,'' Rhiannon said, inserting a pin into her hair as the splashing of water and indistinct hums of contentment could be heard from the bath, ''Solange killed a man today.''
The sounds of splashing from the bathing chamber stopped. Lina's voice replied cautiously, ''Oh? Do tell, my dear.''
''He attacked us with a knife.''
''That was rather foolish of him.''
''He was working for the Jackal.''
''There was silence on both sides for a long moment, then Lina's voice came again: ''My dear, are you are quite all right?''
''Oh yes, love,'' Rhiannon replied somewhat sarcastically. ''I watch men get murdered in front of my eyes every day. In fact, I positively thrive on it.'' She put her shaking hands together in her lap and clenched them together tightly, closing her eyes against the incipient headache that threatened.
She heard the sound of Lina leaving the tub then padding over to her. A wet hand squeezed her shoulder gently. ''My dear,'' Lina said with concern, ''Did he hurt you? If Solange was negligent...''
Rhiannon opened her eyes. ''Negligent?'' she answered with a near hysterical giggle. ''Hardly! Practically before I could draw a breath she cut him down with a knife. Who is she, Lina?''
Lina sighed. ''I am sorry you are upset, Rhiannon. Believe me, if Solange had not felt that you were in immediate danger, she would not have applied such direct means.''
Rhiannon turned around to face Lina, looking up at her. ''Who is she, Lina? Besides a smuggler, I mean. She killed that man without turning a hair! She seemed so unconcerned, so cold blooded. It frightened me.''
Running her hands through her dripping hair, Lina replied, ''There is someone who knows Solange's past more intimately than I. In fact, he is the person we are meeting for tea.'' She bent down to place a tender kiss on Rhiannon's lips. ''You need have no fear for your own safety where Solange is concerned. Trust me, my dear. Do you believe I would deliberately place you in harm's way?''
''No,'' Rhiannon replied softly. ''But really, Lina. I don't know why I'm so upset about this. I realize he might have hurt us, even killed us...''
''I believe it is because you have never deliberately taken a life yourself. If you had, you would understand that sometimes, direct action - without hesitation or regrets - is the only action one may take to preserve a dearer life.''
Rhiannon considered this. ''You're right. Although I came close to shooting Holmes when you were abducted by the Hellfire Club that time. And I know I fired into the crowd of acolytes, but whether I actually killed anyone - I don't know. I only know that you were in danger and I had to act. I would have killed everyone in that room if it had meant your life.''
''I have killed before, Rhiannon. But only because I had to, because there was no other recourse. Even so, I still bear their blood on my hands, I still carry the guilt. It is not an easy choice to make, my dear. Still... I pray you never have to make such a choice yourself.''
''I still don't think it was necessary for Solange to kill that man.''
''Wait until you learn more about her, my dear,'' Lina replied, going back into the bathing chamber for a towel. ''Then perhaps you can make a sounder judgment.''
Rhiannon sat down at the table on the famous terrace at Shepheard's, adjusting the skirts of her white cotton tea gown, the skirts and bodice sprinkled with tiny peach rosebuds and row after row of eyelet lace. The small cap sleeves were trimmed with more of the lace and a peach ribbon around her throat bore a small delicate cameo. Her strawberry-blonde hair was done up in a simple chignon, a pair of ivory combs holding the compact swirl of hair in place, and a corkscrew curl bobbed on either side of her face.
Lina's gown was equally fetching. Also white but trimmed with swags of scarlet satin ribbon, with a matching satin sash wrapped around the waist and a row of tiny mother-of-pearl buttons that marched in a straight line from the rounded neckline all the way to the hem. Twin braids of ebony hair had been wrapped around her head in a coronet style and pretty pearl earrings dangled close to her neck. The sleeves of her dress were long enough to conceal the bandage that was wrapped around one upper arm.
Picking up the menu, Lina said with a chuckle, ''Knowing your appetite, my dear, I suspect I should order the full assortment of sandwiches and the like for tea. Is there anything in particular you are hungry for?''
Rhiannon didn't answer; her eyes were busily taking in the panoply of exotica that marched past the terrace.
Janissaries, bristling with weaponry, walked by in their uniforms, gorgeously embroidered with gold; pith-helmeted European travelers rode past on small donkeys, their feet trailing in the dust; native women in their robes, swathed to the eyebrows in black, only their hennaed hands and dark eyes on view; Arab men in djebellahs and turbans strutted; the unavoidable vendors of sweetmeats and oranges and goatskins of water who pleaded for custom; beggars in ragged robes crying piteously for alms; a few British officers swaggering in crimson dress uniforms and white gloves...
Rhiannon tore her eyes away, breathless. A slight breeze made the palm trees sway and the curls that hung in front of her ears fluttered. ''Oh, Lina!'' she exclaimed. ''The view is wonderful!''
''Well, my dear, they say that if one sits long enough on Shepheard's terrace, one will see the world walk by.''
''And which part of the world have you seen this afternoon?'' came a familiar masculine voice.
Rhiannon's head snapped around. It was Holmes!
The saturnine detective flashed her a small grin and seated himself. ''I take it you ladies enjoy continued health?'' he asked.
Lina put down the menu. ''Despite the machinations of a certain Jackal, yes,'' she replied. ''What have you been up to, Holmes, besides donning ridiculous costumes and flitting about Cairo saving hapless heroines from fates worse than death?''
Holmes grimaced. ''There is no fate worse than death, as you well know,'' he said, ignoring Lina's bantering tone. ''However, I am pleased that my small contributions to your continued existence have not gone unnoticed.''
Rhiannon was confused. ''Lina, what on earth are you talking about?''
''Do you remember the rude Janissary I told you about who shoved me aside in the souk, thus saving me from being stabbed in the heart by my unknown assassin? And Doctor Burton, the elderly professor whose timely intervention prevented you from a fatal scorpion's sting? Well,'' she continued, waving her hand at Holmes, ''observe the source! It was Holmes playing actor who saved us both.''
''Really?'' Rhiannon turned to Holmes. ''Why were you in disguise, Holmes?'' she asked. ''And how did you know we were in danger?''
Before Holmes could answer this question, a white clad waiter shimmered into view. Taking their order, the waiter vanished discreetly and Holmes looked at Rhiannon. ''Both of your questions may be answered quite simply, Miss Rhiannon,'' he replied, his tone grim. ''I know the identity of the Jackal.''
Lina and Rhiannon stared at one another in shock... then both pair of eyes turned back to the smug Sherlock Holmes.
"You... you know who the Jackal is?'' Lina finally managed to get out. ''Holmes, why did you not tell me?''
''I have been investigating a widespread criminal ring in England for quite some time,'' the detective replied. ''This ring has links all over the world, but these in turn lead to a single source. A man called Professor James Moriarty, a veritable Napoleon of crime. I believe it is he who is the mysterious Jackal.''
''I see,'' Lina murmured. ''You have spoken of this Moriarty to me before. How goes your investigation?''
''Not well, I am afraid,'' Holmes replied. The tea arrived and there was a pause while Rhiannon poured.
Handing Holmes a cup, the strawberry-blonde asked, ''Why is this Professor Moriarty after us?''
It was Lina's turn to answer, for she had been thinking furiously. ''He knows Holmes is in Cairo - which is why our dear friend has been going about disguised. How he learned of the Jackal's plot against us is beyond me at the moment, but no doubt he will explain. As to why Moriarty has targeted us...it is obviously because of our connection to Holmes.''
''Precisely.'' Holmes sipped his tea. ''Lady Lina is a known associate of mine. I have been drawing closer and closer to the center of Moriarty's web and he knows it. Upon hearing from a close source that the professor intended to make an 'example' of the two of you, I hastened to Cairo. I could not reveal myself, even privately. I was sure that Moriarty has associates in this part of the world who would be watching for me, so I have been following you surreptitiously.''
''Why have you revealed yourself now?'' Rhiannon asked.
''Last night, the man I knew to be Moriarty's chief associate in this part of the world - Habib ibn Daoud - was confronted by me. I had gathered enough evidence to convict him on innumerable counts of criminal activity, and I told him I would turn it over to the British authorities immediately if he did not turn his coat. Now that he is acting as my informant, I am confident that if any of his underlings should spot me, Moriarty will receive a false report.''
''Congratulations, Holmes!'' Lina said, biting in to a cucumber sandwich. After she swallowed, she continued, ''What are your further plans?''
''I will be returning to England shortly, now that the threat against you and Rhiannon has been neutralized. I doubt Habib will find the courage to attempt your lives again, even on Moriarty's orders.'' Holmes selected a bun and set about consuming it in neat, precise bites.
Rhiannon reached for another slice of cake. ''We'll be leaving on our Cook's tour tomorrow morning,'' she said. ''An entire week on the Nile! I'm glad we won't have to be looking over our shoulders every five minutes.''
''So am I.'' Holmes finished his bun, gulped the remainder of his tea, and stood. ''Good afternoon, ladies,'' he said. ''I must take care of the arrangements for my return. Do enjoy your holiday.''
He started to walk away but was halted when Rhiannon exclaimed, ''Wait!''
Holmes turned around, one dark brow rising. ''Yes, Miss Rhiannon?'' he said. ''Have I neglected something of importance?''
''Holmes, I need to know something. It's important, at least to me.''
''Very well.'' Holmes sat back down and smiled. ''What can I tell you?''
''It's... it's about Solange,'' Rhiannon replied, giving Lina a beseeching glance. The peer, busily tucking into a smoked salmon roll, raised her eyebrows and shrugged. Taking a breath, Rhiannon continued softly, ''She killed a man today.''
''Oh?'' Holmes looked at Lina for confirmation. Receiving her nod, he asked, ''And this troubles you?''
''Yes. He attacked us and while I'm not above self defense, as you well know... actually, it wasn't so much what she did as the way she did it. So... so cold...it's hard to explain.''
''You fear she is a homicidal maniac, perhaps?'' Holmes seemed amused. ''Allow me to lay your fears to rest, Miss Rhiannon. You know of her family's smuggling background?''
''I knew her father, Jean-Claude, quite well. Solange was being trained in the family business but showed a remarkable natural talent for... other things. Things involving weaponry and murder; knives were and still are her 'tool' of choice. Jean-Claude apprenticed her, so to speak, to an assassin in Marseilles. A professional killer named Pierre Mort. An affectation, to be sure, but he was one of the best assassins in France.''
''Yes?'' Rhiannon was fascinated.
''Hmph. She did very well in her new profession until she made the fatal mistake of taking on a job far beyond her skills.'' Holmes stopped and guffawed, much to Rhiannon's astonishment.
''She tried to kill Holmes,'' Lina explained, emerald green eyes twinkling. ''Fortunately, I was with him when she crept into his Baker Street bedroom.''
''You were WHAT?'' Rhiannon blurted wildly. ''Lina, what on earth were you doing in Holmes bedroom?''
Lina chuckled. ''Not what you apparently think, my dear! Holmes had been injured slightly and I was keeping watch over him. At any rate, when Solange entered, I was able to defeat her easily. I suspected darker deeds were afoot, however, and so kept her tied up until Holmes awoke from his laudanum induced slumber.''
Now Holmes continued the thread. ''Once Lina explained to me what had happened, and after my interview with Solange, I spent a little time locating the person who had hired her. This led me, in turn, to another of Moriaty's schemes. Learning that the professor intended to kill Solange to failing, I hastened to Lina's house, where the girl had been kept. I believe Solange was seventeen years old, and had been a matriculated assassin for only two years; the child was still terribly naive, and quite upset at Moriarty's rage. She told me it was unprofessional!'' This seemed to tickle Holmes, and he let out a bray of laughter.
''Moriarty was so furious at Solange's failure that he sent some of his minions after her,'' Lina said, continuing the story. ''There was quite a siege at Grosvenor Square, alarming my neighbors no end. Working together, we managed to beat off the attackers and Moriarty never tried again.''
Holmes poured himself another cup of tea. ''Yes, and when Jean-Claude found out that his precious youngest daughter had nearly gotten herself killed by the premier criminal mastermind in Europe, he was beside himself. I will never forget the way he scolded her for trying to cut the throat of a family friend!'' His shoulders shook with repressed laughter.
Lina giggled. ''He insisted she join my staff by way of recompense for my trouble, since Holmes told him he had no real use for her and also no wish to cause a scandal by living with an attractive young lady who was not his wife! Solange has been with me for years and I regret nothing. She is an excellent ladies maid, you know... among other things.'' She waggled her brows and winked.
Both Lina and Holmes burst out laughing while Rhiannon sat there, staring. Finally, when the howls died down, Rhiannon said, ''I don't know whether to laugh or cry! Lina, you really do consort with cut-throats, thieves and murderers, don't you?''
Wiping tears from her eyes with a napkin, Lina replied, ''Of course, my dear. Did I not warn you when I hired you a year ago as my secretary? In any case, I trust your questions about Solange have been answered.''
''In a manner of speaking, yes,'' Rhiannon replied. ''I just had no idea she could be so... well, she hardly looks the part of a vicious killer.''
''True. Solange can be quite protective, Rhiannon. But trust me when I tell you that she never, ever kills unless provoked. She is very good at what she does, my dear, and equally adept at assessing dangerous situations. She is a professional. If she killed that man today, it was because of some faint clue, one you could not detect, that told her he was not only a potential threat, but one which had to be eliminated immediately to keep you safe.''
''I see.'' Rhiannon considered this. Although she was still slightly troubled, she recognized the need to defend oneself and one's loved ones from those who would do them harm. She didn't fear Solange at all; and now she knew that the maid/assassin would not slaughter everyone in reach if they glanced at her cross-eyed. ''Well, Lina, I feel a little better. Not much, but a little.''
Lina patted her hand. ''I am sorry you were frightened, my dear,'' she said. ''Now... Since we have managed to consume all the tea things, shall we allow Holmes to go? Unless you have further questions.''
''Oh, no!'' Rhiannon exclaimed, ''I am sorry, Holmes! You had to leave and I...''
''It is quite all right, Miss Rhiannon,'' Holmes said with a smile. ''I have enjoyed enlightening you.'' He rose and with a slight bow said, ''Enjoy your holiday, ladies. A bientot!''
As he strode away, Lina watched him go, then turned to Rhiannon. ''Shall we go up and rest a bit before dinner?'' she said. ''We will be going to Mena House tonight, and I am sure you want to look your best.''
Rhiannon grinned wickedly. ''Are you sure that sleep is what you have in mind?,'' she asked.
''Well,'' Lina replied, a grin of her own spreading across her beautiful face, ''perhaps I could be persuaded to do some jewel modeling...''
Rhiannon hastily gulped the rest of her cold tea.
In their bedroom, golden late afternoon sunlight streamed through the carved mashrabiya screens that covered the windows, motes of dust glimmering and dancing in the warm air like minuscule flakes of diamonds and snow.
Lina lay on the bed, naked save for the heavy gold leopard necklace around her throat, dangling earrings and a bangle weighing one wrist - Rhiannon's gifts. Her dark hair was down and the silky length spilled out onto the surface of the bed like a river of jet, sunlight striking highlights of ruby and garnet. Even the black curls between her thighs shimmered as she lazily posed, making sure she satisfied Rhiannon's request.
Rhiannon stared. Lina seemed like an Egyptian goddess, all proud perfect curves and lines of such purity that she seemed unreal. Muscles shifted beneath her sun-touched skin as Lina rolled over and glanced back at Rhiannon over her shoulder, her expression serious. Rhiannon's mouth flooded with saliva and her head felt light, as if it were filled with air and fire.
Lina rolled over again, this time sitting up, striking a pose with her back arched, head back, breasts thrown into prominence, the sun gilding her upstanding nipples. Rhiannon couldn't breathe...
Abruptly, Lina abandoned her pose and stared at Rhiannon, shoulders slumped as if in defeat, her eyes wide and filled with such pain, fear and longing that the other woman was startled.
''Lina?'' Rhiannon asked. ''What's wrong, love?''
Lina didn't answer. She just sat and looked at Rhiannon, emerald eyes filled with tears.
Rhiannon hastily got up from her chair and went over to the bed. ''What is it?'' she asked, worried, putting her arms around Lina. ''What's wrong?''
Lina clutched Rhiannon, feeling her lover's smooth skin beneath her palms. ''I... I am afraid, my dear,'' she stammered, her words running into one another as she tried to explain this sudden change of mood. ''I am afraid this is all a dream, some hallucination, and I will wake up and find you gone again... I have been walking on eggshells, praying if it was a dream, that I never awaken... telling myself that I must behave normally, must keep my fear hidden, afraid you might vanish again and I would be lost...''
Rhiannon gathered Lina to her, pressing her nude body against Lina's. ''I'm here,'' she whispered into Lina's ear. ''I told you: I won't leave you again. I'm real, love. Feel me...'' She guided Lina's trembling hand to her breast, brushing the back of that hand against her nipple. ''See? Not a dream.''
Rhiannon had wondered why, after such an emotional outburst the previous night, her lover had been apparently unaffected by it. Now she knew the truth... Poor love, she thought, rubbing Lina's back with her other hand, she was terrified to tell me, too scared to show me she was still insecure, in case I might leave again.
Lina looked into Rhiannon's face with an expression of love mingled with fear and doubt. ''I do not know...,'' she said slowly, her eyes searching, ''I cannot know what is real anymore. Losing you was my worst nightmare come to life. Tell me,'' she continued fiercely, ''Tell me I am not dreaming. Tell me that this is real... or at least let me rest contented in the illusion, because otherwise, I am afraid I could not live.''
Rhiannon delicately traced the outline of Lina's ear with her tongue, making the other woman shudder. ''Did that feel real?'' she breathed.
''Yessss,'' Lina hissed, closing her eyes.
Rhiannon kissed her way along Lina's jawline until she reached her lips. ''Does this feel real?'' she murmured.
''Yes,'' Lina whispered.
Rhiannon kissed Lina gently, tenderly, allowing the other woman to feel her love, willing her lover to understand just how much she wanted her, needed her, loved her.
When the kiss ended, Lina had begun to relax. ''I love you,'' Lina said, hugging Rhiannon tightly, her face buried against the other woman's shoulder. ''I love you...''
''I love you, too,'' Rhiannon replied. ''Don't be scared, love. Nothing will ever take me away from you again. Nothing. Believe that if you believe nothing else! Because I love you, Lady Evangeline St. Claire, and you are mine, and I am yours, and we will always, always be together.''
Lina looked into Rhiannon's eyes, so like a swatch of perfect, pale blue sky, and read the deep emotions that flooded to the surface: affection, tender regard, passion...
But what she saw foremost was love - powerful, unrestrained, nothing held back or kept away, pure and trusting and infinitely giving... and the last of her doubts and insecurity vanished beneath that onslaught of realization: We are two souls in perfect accord, Lina thought. She is right; I am hers and she is mine, and nothing in this world or the next can keep us apart.
The dark haired woman kissed Rhiannon's face, her hands sliding up to bury themselves in that glorious mane of golden-red hair. ''No more fear,'' she murmured, ''No more doubt. Rhiannon Moore - We are love.''
Rhiannon sighed into Lina's mouth and pulled her down onto the bed.
The two women lay side by side on the bed, facing one another, kissing.
Lina traced her tongue along Rhiannon's collarbone, paying careful attention to the delicate dip in the hollow of her throat. Rhiannon squeezed Lina's broad shoulders and closed her eyes as her lover's wet, warm touch ignited a slow burn of desire.
Rhiannon released Lina's shoulder and ran her hand over the other woman's arm, caressing the firm muscles, and then along one curved hip. Licking her lips as the tip of Lina's tongue wandered across her throat, Rhiannon ran her fingers across the dark curls between her lover's thighs.
Lina sighed and shifted a little, raising one leg and bending the knee to allow Rhiannon access. Their mouths met in a kiss and Rhiannon gently explored Lina's mouth with her tongue as her fingers glided through the other woman's slick folds.
Lina felt a shock of sensation burst within her as she felt Rhiannon's small fingers caressing, sliding... she moaned, head falling back, as Rhiannon found the core of her desire and began stroking the wet nub in tiny circles, at first slowly, then more firmly. She arched her back and hissed when Rhiannon's hot mouth closed over a nipple, scrubbing it with the flat of her tongue then flicking it rapidly back and forth.
Rhiannon closed her eyes as Lina's hands slid through her hair, cupping her head gently. She nudged the other woman with her shoulder until Lina was on her back, legs spread apart, then without stopping her finger's motion, rolled until she was straddling one of Lina's thighs.
Lina moaned again as the sensations that thrummed through her body became stronger and stronger and she felt the waves building, pleasure so intense it was closely akin to pain.
Lina's hands reached up again and she blindly put them on Rhiannon's shoulders, kneading the firm flesh. Rhiannon released her lover's hard nipple and scooted forward a little so she could nibble and suck on her neck, rubbing Lina's core more firmly and faster as her hips started jerking back and forth, hands biting into the flesh of Rhiannon's shoulders..
The tickling rasp of Rhiannon's mound against her leg and the hot, slippery moisture that spoke of Rhiannon's own desire; the breast she could feel pressed against hers; the velvety wet tongue that was licking her ear; the stroking of her sensitive nub - all these things created a swirling universe of incredible sensations that swept Lina away.
With a series of grunts and gasps, a desperately panting Lina was consumed by pleasure, convulsing and jerking against Rhiannon's hand as the powerful wave of pure sensation peaked again... and again...
She tossed her head from side to side, every muscle trembling, incapable of anything save feeling the ripples of pleasure. Finally, however, the intensity eased slowly into tiny twitches and a breathless sense of fulfillment... she opened her eyes, breathing heavily, a thin sheen of sweat glistening on her body.
Rhiannon took her hand away from Lina's mound, giving it a final pat. She kissed Lina's bottom lip, sucking it gently, then released it and said softly, ''I love you, Lina.''
Lina felt weak, boneless... she lay there a moment longer, catching her breath, then sat up, her back against the headboard. ''Come here,'' she said huskily, her arms open.
Rhiannon shifted and knelt between Lina's thighs, pressing herself against her beloved. 'Yes?'' she asked with an arched brow.
In answer, Lina kissed her, strong hands flat on Rhiannon's shoulder blades. Rhiannon's mouth opened and Lina's tongue slid in, wet warmth pushing past her teeth, sensuously filling her...
She moaned and Lina broke off the kiss. ''Turn around,'' Lina whispered, running her tongue along Rhiannon's jaw.
Rhiannon turned and sat down between Lina's outspread thighs, pulling her knees up to rest on the other woman's legs and leaning back, close to trembling, knowing the warmth she felt at her center was growing... wanting, needing release.
Lina cupped Rhiannon's breasts with both hands, kneading the firm flesh, feeling the nipple stiffen into rock hard peaks. Rhiannon moaned as Lina grasped her erect nipples between thumbs and forefingers and gently pinched them, rolling them a little, sending hot sparks of pleasure rippling through Rhiannon's body.
She arched her back, whispering, ''Oh, yes,'' as Lina freed one hand and pulled Rhiannon's hair aside, then began kissing and sucking the back of her neck and shoulders, her tongue flicking against the pale flesh.
Still playing with one nipple, Lina smoothed Rhiannon's belly with her free hand, then slipped her fingers down inside the slippery wetness of her mound, delving deeply, sliding around the wet folds as Rhiannon squirmed, trying to spread her legs wider apart, finally putting both legs over Lina's so that she was fully open and exposed.
Lina smiled into Rhiannon's neck and found the other woman's nub with her finger, then began rubbing it firmly back and forth. Rhiannon's eyes were closed tightly as the tingling in her center grew stronger, quickly turning into a burning wire of unadulterated pleasure that scorched every nerve to the bone...
Lina kept her rhythm and gently bit the side of Rhiannon's neck, enjoying the feel of the other woman's sweat-slick body pushing her harder against the headboard as Rhiannon squealed and dug her heels into the bed, managing to spread herself even wider, hips twitching, hands gripping Lina's thighs so tightly they left marks.
Panting, heart beating faster, Rhiannon screwed up her face and with a shuddering wail, ''Leeeeeeeeena!!!'' surrendered to the exquisite sensations and was carried up, up into a shattering moment of utter release, a flood of white-hot waves that left her shuddering and spasming, emitting little squeals and gasps of pleasure.
Lina released Rhiannon's breast and put her arm around her waist, supporting her until the climax was finished and her lover lay limp against her, panting hard.
Lina shifted Rhiannon over, carefully laying her on her side, then tucked herself against the other woman, smoothing red-blonde hair from her brow. Leaning up on one elbow, Lina said, ''I do so enjoy it when you call my name at such moments.''
Rhiannon giggled softly. She still felt as if she was glowing and was surprised that her internal light didn't rival the sunshine. ''Are you feeling smug?'' she asked, adjusting her position slightly so she could see Lina.
''Quite.'' The look on Lina's face was one approaching smugness. ''I love the way you respond to my touch, my dear. It makes me feel, hmmm, inordinately proud.''
''Well, I love your touch, so we're even,'' Rhiannon replied. She reached around and pulled Lina's arm over her waist, snuggling back against her beloved. ''Of course, when you're grunting like a piglet, I feel smug, too.''
Lina nestled her chin in the crook of Rhiannon's shoulder. ''A piglet, eh?'' she said. ''I see I shall be forced to work on my repertoire of porcine imitations.''
Rhiannon giggled again... then there was quiet as they both dozed off, warmed by the sweet golden sunshine and by one another.
In her own room, adjacent to her mistress', where the wolfhound Fyvie
napped at the foot of her bed, Solange rolled her eyes at the wall and
turned another page in her magazine, grateful there would be some peace
and quiet for a while.
At the foot of the Gaza Plateau, the hotel had been designed to look like an English manor house on the outside, and was surrounded by lush gardens, but Oriental splendor reigned supreme within. In the dining room, high ceilings sported soft lights and the walls were decorated with antique mashrabiya screens. A sense of magic permeated Mena House, for beyond its walls could be seen the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the Sphinx and lesser pyramids.
After a leisurely dinner, Lina coaxed Rhiannon to climb the slope beyond the gardens for her first close look at the Great Pyramid. The moon hung in the sky like a disk of beaten gold, flooding the sandy plateau with silvery light and shadow; as the two women picked their way across the rubble strewn plain, Rhiannon was glad that Lina had insisted they wear their trouser outfits and stout boots instead of normal dinner dress.
Torches flared, brilliant sparks of light against the velvet black sky, and Rhiannon could see that others were climbing up the sides of the Great Pyramid, assisted by guides. Several native men approached Lina, who waved them away with a curtly polite, ''Alaihi wa salaam, the blessings of Allah be upon you, thank you, no, we are fine.''
They continued until they reached the blocks of stone surrounding the base, and then began to climb. Few of the stones were higher than three-and-a-half feet, so Lina was able to assist Rhiannon's ascent with ease.
Upon reaching the top, Rhiannon realized that they stood upon a flat table some thirty feet square. The pyramidion and the upper courses of the monument had been removed and the view from so high up was spectacular.
Barely remembering to breathe, Rhiannon looked to the east, to the Nile, the night-dark waters shimmering with points of diamond-bright light, a great swathe of moonlight spilling across the waves like white satin ribbon... silhouettes of palms stood against the sky, fan-like fronds waving lazily in a gentle river breeze. Beyond, she could barely make out the flickering lights of Cairo.
Lina's arm around her shoulders startled her out of her reverie. ''Magnificent, is it not?'' the peer asked with a smile.
''Yes,'' Rhiannon said, her eyes wide and wondering, ''It's just so... it's much more beautiful than I ever imagined it. Thank you, love,'' she added, turning her head and kissing Lina's hand where it rested on her shoulder.
''In the morning, you will see even more wonderful sights. I cannot wait, my dear, to show you the temple of Karnak. It is on the Theban Plain, which is at the end of our journey. Although the deprivations of Europeans and the simple greed of the poor native population have reduced its splendor somewhat, the ruins are still quite breathtaking.''
''Lina, when were you in Egypt before?''
''When I was much younger, my dear. Like all debutantes entering upon a social season, my parents insisted on sending me on a Grand Tour. Paris, Rome, Athens... but I fell in love with Egypt when I came and stayed my steps until my poor mother despaired of my ever coming home.''
Rhiannon looked at Lina's face. The moonlight made the beautiful planes stand out starkly and her eyes gleamed, darkened by shadow from emerald into brilliant jet. ''Is your mother still alive?'' she asked, remembering Solange's story of the Duchess' refusal to aid her daughter when Lina lay in such desperate straits in Paris not too many years ago.
''Yes,'' Lina sighed, ''and no doubt one day you will be forced to endure meeting her, my dear. But not tonight. Let me say only that my mother and I do not enjoy a close relationship ever since certain aspects of my life were thrust into her unwilling regard.''
Rhiannon nodded. She believed she knew what Lina was saying; that her mother had rejected her upon discovering her preference for her own sex. ''I'm sorry if I brought up a delicate subject, love,'' she said, wrapping her arm around Lina's waist and leaning into her. ''I didn't mean to upset you.''
''Oh, not at all,'' Lina replied, squeezing Rhiannon's shoulder, ''However, one's parental relationships, or lack of them, are not subjects I would consider suitable topics of conversation on a night such as this.''
Rhiannon asked no more questions; she merely sighed, leaned her head against her lover, and watched the moonlight turn the sands into gold.
The next morning, Rhiannon puttered around the cabin, enormously excited. The Mirror of Hathor was one of the ubiquitous Cook's Tour steamers that plied their trade up and down the Nile, making frequent stops at areas of interest. Lina had booked them in the largest and best suite but it was still rather small, if elegantly appointed.
A bed, just big enough for the two of the, swathed in filmy mosquito netting; a dresser and small built-in wardrobe; table and a pair of plushly upholstered chairs; and a little bathroom that Rhiannon found charming, even if the miniature tub was much too small to accommodate two. The walls were paneled in light woods and painted with murals in the ancient Egyptian style, portraying kings, queens, gods and temples in brilliant hues.
Their steward, a mild-mannered young man named Hamid, had already filled clay jugs with fresh cool water and placed a pretty rosebud in the crystal vase on the table. Lina was seeing to the trunks they would be leaving behind, having already arranged for Solange, who would be staying at Shepheard's with Fyvie, to come aboard in order to arrange their wardrobe.
Solange labored over an open trunk, laying out dresses on the bed, a small frown creasing her forehead. ''Which morning dresses will you be taking, Miss Rhiannon?'' she asked.
''It doesn't matter to me!'' Rhiannon exclaimed, too delighted to be bothered with details. ''Just lay out whatever you wish, Solange! I feel far too giddy to make decisions today.''
Solange smiled and continued her sorting. Despite the fact she would be remaining behind, the maid had already begun to plan her own adventure. The hotel cook had a son, a very handsome son whose response to Solange's overtures had been very promising. The room Lina had engaged for her at Shepheard's would get quite a bit of use before she had to leave to meet her mistresses at Luxor.
A sudden thought made Rhiannon's excitement ebb. ''Solange,'' she said, ''when that man... when you killed that man yesterday, why did you do it? Was is truly necessary?''
Solange was quiet for a moment, then answered, ''Oui. I cut him first as a warning, to give him every chance to change his mind. No one made him attack us, Miss Rhiannon, and it was his choice to continue the fight. I would have let him go if he had just walked away - but he didn't. People like that... it is best one does not give them too many chances. Turn your back and poof! They cut your throat. So,'' she continued with a shrug, ''I took care of him quickly. I am sorry you had to witness it. I know you were upset.''
''Lina told me you were once hired to kill Holmes. We spoke of it at tea yesterday.''
''That was when I was younger and more foolish.'' Solange did not seem troubled by Rhiannon's questions. ''My father was furious with me! I knew Monsieur Holmes was his friend but I thought the relationship was more casual than it actually was. Also, I was in a mood of defiance; I wanted to show my father that I could succeed on my own. I am glad Lady Lina did no more than break my arm that night. She could have killed me.''
''And that's why you stayed?''
Solange shrugged again, continuing her sorting. ''Oui, Miss Rhiannon. She had me helpless... she could have broken my neck if she wanted. I knew it and was resigned. You see, I knew I deserved death; every assassin is aware of the penalty for failure. But instead she helped me, even defended me against Moriarty's men when all she had to do was turn me out of the door. After that, even without my father's command, I would have stayed. We became friends... then more than friends.''
Rhiannon raised one brow. ''More than friends,'' she repeated delicately.
Solange looked at her with ebony eyes that gleamed with amusement. ''It is not what you think, Miss Rhiannon. We have never been lovers; more like sisters. But after Paris, after Victoire's death... I think Lady Lina was so ashamed of the way she behaved that she cut me off. Oh, I do not mean to imply she treats me badly - on the contrary. But we are not as close as we once were, and that I regret.''
Solange said nothing else, merely finished unpacking the trunks and saw to their removal. Finally, she turned to Rhiannon. ''Have a wonderful trip, Miss Rhiannon. I know I will have a wonderful time staying!'' Her eyes sparkled with glee.
''Thank you, Solange,'' Rhiannon replied, feeling infinitely more comfortable in the maid's presence. She knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Solange could be trusted, and would fear her no longer. ''Take care of Fyvie for me, please. I'm sorry we couldn't bring her aboard, but she's far bigger than the usual lady's lap dog.''
Solange giggled. ''Oui. She is no Pekinese. Well, au revoir. Fyvie and I will meet you and Lady Lina in Luxor in one week.'' Withdrawing a flat package from her pocket, Solange continued, ''Here. This is for you and Lady Lina - an anniversary gift. All of the servants put together to buy it for you.''
Rhiannon accepted the package, hugginh the maid. ''Thank you very much. You're all so thoughtful! I'll tell Lina when she gets back; I'm sure she'll be thrilled.'' She released Solange and stepped back. ''Now, you'd better leave before the crew casts off. Take care, and we'll see you in a week.''
Rhiannon watched the pretty French woman depart, smiling at the whistles of appreciation that floated through the closing door as Solange stepped out on deck. I bet she won't be staying in Shepheard's alone, Rhiannon thought with a wicked chuckle.
Then she turned and surveyed what would be her kingdom for the next week. Humming happily, Rhiannon sat down and began writing a postcard to the servants at Grosvenor Square.
"Good morning, my dear!'' Lina said, ''I trust the accommodations are to your liking?''
''Oh, yes,'' Rhiannon replied, ''They're marvelous! When do we get underway?''
''Shortly, I believe. When I came up the gangplank the crew was already beginning to cast off the ropes. Shall we go up on the deck and see the sights?''
''Of course!'' Rhiannon replied. ''Just let me get my hat.'' The strawberry blonde woman was dressed in an off-white tea gown trimmed in loops of dark rose ribbon and embroidered vines of forest green. The bodice was outlined in lace and a single string of freshwater pearls around her neck was complemented by the pearl earrings Lina had worn at tea the previous day. A matching straw hat showered with dark roses and leaves was hastily pinned to her head and the two women left their cabin.
Up on deck, they selected a small table near the rail and sat down, ordering mint tea and cakes from the smiling waiter. An awning extended overhead, protecting them from the sun, and a slight breeze floated off the river. Suddenly, with an ear-shattering blast of steam, the Mirror of Hathor jerked once, twice, then pulled away from the dock and began her journey down the Nile, engines chugging and rudder churning the blue-green waters into foam.
Sipping her tea, Lina said, ''Tomorrow night is our anniversary, my dear.''
Rhiannon looked at her lover thoughtfully. Lina wore one of her trouser costumes, the sturdy cotton dyed the exact shade of tawny Spanish port and trimmed with colorful bands of Kashmiri embroidery on the cuffs and lapel of the jacket. The leather holster for her pistol had been left inside the cabin; instead, wound around her waist was a sash woven of gold, crimson and dark blue threads, the tasseled ends hanging nearly to her knees.
With her ebony hair twisted into a single braid down her back, gold hoops dangling from her ears, and a small strip of sunburn across her nose, Rhiannon thought Lina looked like a corsair, one of the Barbary pirates of old who plied their lusty trade with abandon along the Mediterranean Coast.
Seeing Lina's inquiring glance, Rhiannon flushed... lost in admiration, she had forgotten that Lina was waiting for her to hold up her side of the conversation. ''Our anniversary?'' Rhiannon said quickly, wetting her lips with her tea, ''Yes. I know. Did you have something special in mind?''
''Oh, not really,'' Lina answered casually. ''I thought perhaps a quiet dinner in our cabin or some such.''
Rhiannon swallowed a sudden sense of disappointment. She had been half-way expecting some enormously romantic gesture. ''Really? Nothing else?''
''Well, it has been an exciting past few days,'' Lina said with supreme unconcern. ''I thought you would enjoy the chance to rest and relax a bit. Tomorrow we will be at Beni Hassan; the Twelfth Dynasty tombs there are very grand.''
Rhiannon nodded, trying to hide her disappointment. Her attention was distracted by a man and woman who were crossing the deck near them.
The woman, dressed in a glittering gown more becoming a ball than a breakfast, said in a nasal voice, not trying to lower her tone, ''...it's true, I tell you! Tribades, the pair of them! Dirty degenerates... why, I don't know what the world's coming to, when such sinful trash can be allowed to mingle with respectable people!'' The sneering glance the woman sent their way left no doubt in Rhiannon's mind that the 'dirty degenerates' the woman referred to were herself... and Lina.
The man shot them an apologetic look over his shoulder as his companion led him firmly away... and Rhiannon caught her breath when she saw the expression on Lina's face.
The peer was flushed with fury; her hands balled into fists. Lina rose, shoving her chair backwards, clearly intending to confront the woman, who was still talking, ''...knows what tricks they get up to in the night! Why, it's not a subject decent folk even think of, much less speak about! But I heard they were about their filthy business all over Cairo...''
The woman finally noticed Lina's rage, and her mouth closed with a click at the sheer menace that oozed from the taller woman's stance. Lina started across the deck, fuming, but was stopped by Rhiannon's desperate hold on the sleeve of her jacket. Turning around, Lina opened her mouth to say something but Rhiannon put a finger across her own lips.
''Shhhh,'' she whispered. ''I know a better way.''
Lina's fury changed to astonishment as Rhiannon threw her arms around her neck and kissed her passionately, her wet tongue sliding between Lina's lips and her hands caressing the back of her neck in a way that left absolutely no doubt as to their relationship. Opening one eye, Lina saw the obnoxious woman, scarlet faced, dragging her companion away. She tore her lips from Rhiannon's and chuckled. ''Oh, my dear!'' Lina said. ''Brava!''
''Thank you,'' Rhiannon said, ''You just can't go around beating people up all the time, love. Especially malicious old biddies like that. I doubt she'll do more than send scathing glances our way from now on. At least, if she gossips, she'll be quieter about it.''
''Yes, I see your point. What made me angry is not so much what she said but that you might have been hurt by it.''
Rhiannon shrugged. ''I've been called much worse,'' she replied. ''Anyway, the opinions of strangers, especially dirty-minded strangers, don't mean a thing to me.''
Lina kissed Rhiannon's cheek. ''My dear, you are wiser than you know.'' She escorted her wife back to the table and saw her settled, then sat back down herself and picked up her cup of cooled tea, saluting Rhiannon with a toast. ''Here's to you, my dear... Slayer of Gossips and Valiant Protector of Tribades Everywhere!''
Rhiannon choked on her tea and Lina had to spend some time pounding her on the back before she regained her composure.
Back in the cabin, Lina was napping, snoring softly until Rhiannon nudged her with an elbow and turned her over on her side. The snoring ceased and Rhiannon went back to the notes she was jotting down in the miniature notebook she always carried with her. Despite Lina's claims to the contrary, her naps frequently made up for the lack of sleep she got during the night... not all of it her lover's fault.
A sudden shadow slipped across the transomed door, blocking the sunlight. Rhiannon blinked then slowly slid off the bed, one hand reaching for the reassuring presence of her staff.
The staff had been made of solid ebony and customized to fit her hand. As tall as she was, one end terminated in a rounded wooden knob inset with ivory and jade in the shape of two clasping hands. Rather than planed smooth, the shaft was minutely crosshatched to improve Rhiannon's grip, and it further harbored a deadly secret - by twisting a hidden catch in the center of the staff, a razor sharp steel point sprang out of the flat end, rather like a narrow spearhead.
Rhiannon had never used that aspect of the staff before but she knew it only made her weapon that much more deadly. When the clever craftsman had suggested it, she had agreed. Now she was glad she had it; her pistol was out of reach, tucked in a dresser drawer, and if she had to use deadly force to repel an attacker, at least she wouldn't have to try barehanded.
The doorknob twisted and Rhiannon set her legs apart, weight distributed evenly on the balls of her feet, staff held at the ready. Mentally, she thanked God that she was not encumbered by a dress but had changed into a loose, comfortable robe of pale blue silk.
The door opened slowly, inch by inch, and a hand inserted itself within. A man's hand...
Swallowing any sound, Rhiannon waited, heartbeat thundering in her ears, until the indistinct figure of a man, nothing but a black silhouette against the blazing copper sun, appeared in the almost opened doorway.
Bring her staff up, Rhiannon struck the intruder solidly on the shoulder, then shifted her grip and jabbed him in the midsection. As he folded over, she flicked the staff out and hit him on the side of the head, knocking him to the floor of the cabin. A quick push and he was on his back, helpless. She sprang the hidden release and a spearpoint shot out, the sun glittering along its keen edges. Rhiannon put the point of the blade against the man's throat and squinted down, trying to identify him.
His hands were splayed at his side, clearly showing he held no weapon, but he was a stranger to the strawberry blonde. His dark hair was slicked back from a high forehead and he had a stringy mustache and round pox-scarred face. His flared nostrils quivered as he tried to control his breathing, and through his slightly open mouth, Rhiannon glimpsed several missing teeth.
Lina's hand touched her shoulder. ''What's this?'' the peer asked, rubbing her eyes. The moment Rhiannon had gotten out of bed, Lina had been awake, merely feigning sleep. Remembering her heartfelt vow not to smother her beloved Rhiannon ever again, she had stayed quiet and still, wanting to see how her wife handled the situation; however, she had kept a tight grip on the revolver beneath her pillow.
The man began to chuckle; in a familiar voice, he said, ''Bravo, Miss Rhiannon! You have defeated me handily!''
Rhiannon stared. ''Holmes?''
Lina nodded. ''Yes, Holmes,'' she drawled. ''Do stop threatening to cut the man's throat, my dear. Blood is so difficult to get out of carpets, you know.''
Rhiannon thumbed the catch and the spearpoint sprang back into its hidden cavity. Moving aside, she said, ''Why didn't you just knock, Holmes? You could have gotten killed!''
''True,'' the detective said, sitting up. ''However, my purpose was two-fold. First, to test your defenses - and you, Lady Lina, will be glad to know I find them more than adequate - and secondly, to give you a necessary warning.''
''What do you mean, warning?'' Lina asked.
Holmes sobered. ''Habib is dead,'' he said. ''And I fear you two are
in the gravest of danger.''
"Habib is dead?'' Lina asked, hauling Holmes off the floor. ''How?''
''A more appropriate question would be, Who?'' the lean detective asked. He began stripping off his disreputable costume, removing the pads in his mouth that had rounded his face, as well as the horribly lifelike dentures. ''Habib was found murdered this morning in his home. This was found at the scene.'' He held out his hand and in the palm was another of the onyx jackal charms. ''I believe it is no longer safe for either of you to remain in Egypt. I must insist you return to England at once.''
Lina's eyes narrowed. ''You insist?'' she asked in a dangerous tone. ''I do not believe you are in a position to insist on anything of the sort, my dear Holmes.''
Holmes had begun scrubbing the theatrical makeup from his face with a towel; now he looked at Lina with something approaching anger in his normally phlegmatic face. ''I will not put up with any of your temperamental nonsense, Lina,'' he said, then continued scrubbing, his voice muffled, ''You will do as you have been told.''
Lina sucked in a breath. ''And who are you to presume to tell me what I must and must not do?'' she hissed. ''You overstep yourself, Holmes!''
Rhiannon stood and watched this with wide eyes, her staff still in her hand, relieved that Lina's revolver was safely in the dresser.
Holmes finished with the towel and flung it to one side. His dark hair, sprinkled with silver at the temples, was standing up in spikes. ''Lady St. Claire,'' he said angrily, ''I respect and admire you as a friend and colleague, but I tell you that you are out of your depths! Now, GO HOME!'' he roared.
Lina drew herself up to her full height, eyes glittering with rage. ''I will do no such thing! Holmes, you are not my father! And I am of an age and station where if I choose to ignore such presumptuous commands, I may do so! I will NOT go home!''
Holmes' hands were balled into fists and he took a step forward... then recollected himself. His hands relaxed at his sides and he drew a deep breath. ''Very well,'' he said, ''if you choose to put both yourself and Miss Rhiannon in danger, I will not stop you. However, you may consider yourself as strictly on your own, Lady St. Claire. I am returning to England in the morning. Good afternoon,'' he said curtly, then let himself out of the cabin.
Rhiannon stared at Lina as the peer's red face slowly faded into its normal paler hues. ''Lina,'' she asked, appalled, ''what on earth has gotten into Holmes?''
''Typical male!'' Lina exclaimed, her face flushing again. ''Ready to share his mastery of the world so long as meek woman remains unmoving upon the pillar he has placed her! The arrogance of the man! Order me home, will he? As if I were some servant? Some meek and brainless fool? DAMN YOU, Mr. Sherlock Holmes!''
With that, Lina stormed away into the bathroom and slammed the door, leaving an astonished Rhiannon behind.
Rhiannon shook her head. Lina had still been fuming when they'd gone to bed the night before and had refused to say anything more about Holmes. Rhiannon had deemed it best to drop the subject, hoping that when they returned to England, the breach between Lina and her mentor/friend could be healed somehow.
''You seem terribly quiet this morning,'' Lina continued, glancing with concern at her silent partner. ''Are you unwell?''
''No, Lina, I'm fine.'' Rhiannon patted her lips with the napkin and rose. ''When are we going to see the tombs at Beni Hassan?''
''As soon as you are ready, my dear,'' Lina replied. ''You had best bring a parasol; the sun will wreak havoc on your complexion. Out in the open desert, man must bring his own shade.''
The Mirror of Hathor had docked at Beni Hassan - a typical Egyptian village of the poorest sort, where the people lived just on the edge of survival. The disembarking passengers were swarmed by villagers asking for baksheesh or offering fragments of mummies or manufactured antiquities for sale. Lina guided Rhiannon away from the crowd and they set off for the famous tombs.
Some years previously, the tombs at Beni Hassan had been magnificent. Now, however, the walls with their stunning paintings had been mutilated by natives chopping out fragments to sell to antiquities dealers, and by unthinking tourists who carried bits away as souvenirs. The hieroglyphics and paintings that were left had been dulled by smoke from the candles carried by guides. Nevertheless, Rhiannon was enthralled.
''I feel as if I'm standing in history,'' the strawberry blonde said, carefully examining a section of wall where a pretty painting of an ibis could still be seen. ''This place has been here for so long... one can almost feel the passage of centuries, yet it remains untouched, aloof from time...''
''Poetically put, my dear, but unfortunately, these tombs and others like them are not untouched by the ravages of man.'' Lina's lips were thin. ''When I see how my fellow man has treated such monuments of history, I am almost inspired to renounce my membership in their greedy, soulless clan.''
''Not entirely soulless, Lina,'' Rhiannon chided. ''Man created these tombs, you know.''
''True.'' Lina sighed. ''Come, my dear... allow me to show you what is left of the cartouche of the chief of this district in the Twelfth Dynasty...''
They returned to the boat early in the afternoon, when the sun's heat
beat down from overhead, creating shimmering waves over the sands. After
a refreshing lunch of cool salads and sandwiches and icy lemonade, Lina
and Rhiannon retired to their cabin for a much needed nap. But as soon
as she was sure that Rhiannon had fallen into a deep sleep, Lina crept
out of the cabin... alone.
When Rhiannon woke, it was dark outside. The sun had sunk far below the western horizon to continue its journey in the Land of the Dead, and the moon had risen high, a horned disk of silver such as a priestess of Isis might have worn in the days before the might of the Egyptian Empire waned.
Rhiannon rubbed her eyes and sat up. ''Lina?'' she said.
There was no answer. Getting out of bed, Rhiannon turned on the light and saw a folded letter laid prominently on the little table where she and Lina had shared their breakfast that morning.
The note read:
My dear: When you read this, I will be gone. However, before you accuse me of dastardly deeds, know that the mission I have departed upon is one dealing with a subject very close to my heart - namely, yourself. I cannot give you details, but ask that you wait until nine o'clock tonight. At that time, go out on deck, where you will be met by one of the crewmen, Abduhl. Ask him no questions, my dear. Everything has been arranged. With all my love, I remain forever your beloved - Lina.
Rhiannon was torn between fury, frustration and curiosity. What the Devil is going on? she asked herself. I thought she wanted a quiet dinner in our cabin - now she's gone off God only knows where!
''You had better have a very good excuse, Lady Evangeline St. Claire,'' Rhiannon muttered, glancing at the clock. It was eight-thirty. ''A very good excuse indeed.''
Abduhl was young, slim as a reed, and possessed the thickest, darkest eyelashes Rhiannon had ever seen. The crewman politely escorted Rhiannon to a waiting boat and rowed her across the shore. Ignoring Lina's injunctions, Rhiannon questioned him but to no avail. He merely shrugged apologetically. Either he knew no English or was pretending not to understand.
Upon reaching the shore, Abduhl placed another note in Rhiannon's hand. To her astonishment, he clambered nimbly back into the boat and rowed away to the Mirror.
Fortunately, the moon cast more than enough light to read by.
''My dear," Rhiannon read aloud, ''Follow the North Star. Your journey will not be long and I have provided a place for you to stay your steps and rest awhile. Yours always, Lina.''
Doggedly, pulling her shawl tighter around her shoulders, Rhiannon trudged across the sands, guided by the most brilliant star in the firmament. Finally, cresting a dune, she stopped and stood stock still.
A large tent had been pitched in the wilderness of the desert. Dyed a ruddy crimson and lit from within, it seemed to bloom and glow with light like a ruby petaled flower. The wind blew gently, making the gold tasseled flaps of the entrance shiver and dance.
A brazier was set up in front of the tent, large pieces of flaming wood sending a spiraling swirl of sparks up to leap and dance on the wind. Eyes wide with wonder, Rhiannon ducked beneath the flaps of the tent and went inside.
Antique Persian carpets covered the floor, one overlapping the other in a luxurious cascade. In the four corners of the tent, lamps of pierced brass cast a golden glow, and plush pillows and low tables were scattered throughout. Domed salvers sat on some of the tables; lifting one, Rhiannon saw fresh fruit packed in shaved ice.
Behind curtains of sheer netting stood a bed of carved cedar, piled with feather mattresses and covered with lengths of green, purple and crimson silk. Pulling aside one of the curtains, Rhiannon realized that not all of the coverings were bedclothes; a costume lay across the foot of the bed.
Picking it up, Rhiannon saw that the clothing consisted of a pair of sheer, midnight blue silk trousers with incredibly wide legs, spangled with diamante; a short, sleeveless vest of gold set with tiny chips of sapphire glass and trimmed in navy braid and fringe; and a misty, dark blue veil spotted with flecks of gold.
Bemused, Rhiannon removed her trouser suit and put on the fanciful costume, taking her hair down as well. The trousers were like wisps of air around her legs and the brief top exposed her firm midriff. The veil was fastened to the sides of her hair with a pair of gold pins that were topped by cabochon sapphires.
Walking back through the net curtain on bare feet, Rhiannon heard a sound... the thundering of hoofbeats that seemed to echo like thunder in the still night. She went to the entrance of the tent and stood waiting, heart pounding a matching tattoo.
A magnificent white horse reared over the crest of a dune, the rider silhouetted against the moon. With a masterful touch, the rider guided the horse down the slope and brought it to a shivering standstill beside the brazier.
Rhiannon's eyes were wide and searching. The rider was dressed as a Bedouin with dark blue robes, a turban and veil. But looking back at her over that concealing veil was a pair of familiar eyes... green as emeralds... filled with love.
As Lina dismounted, music filled the night... the beat of a drum, the wailing of a recorder, the chiming of the daff or tambourine. The musicians were hidden behind a dune at some little distance from the tent, but in the clear desert air, their pulsating rhythm carried clearly.
Lina walked to the tent and stood for a long moment, looking down at Rhiannon. The costume she had placed on the bed suited her wife admirably, and Lina's eyes widened when she noticed that beneath the yards of filmy silk, Rhiannon was completely nude.
Without a word, Lina laid a hand on Rhiannon's arm and guided her back into the tent. Releasing the other woman and sinking down on a pile of cushions, Lina said simply, ''Dance for me.''
For a moment, Rhiannon didn't know what to do and nearly panicked. But the hypnotic rhythm, nearly as old as time itself, somehow seemed to pulse in her blood, carrying instruction and unthinking passion in equal amounts. Instinctively, her hips began to sway; closing her eyes, Rhiannon surrendered to the music, lifted her arms above her head, and danced.
Lina watched Rhiannon as the other woman gracefully swayed and rolled her hips, hands twining together then coming apart to gesture, beseech...
Feet flickering on the carpet as she shook her shoulders, the sleeveless vest she wore barely containing her full breasts. Lina's heart beat faster as the music gained tempo and Rhiannon twirled in place, her red-gold hair spinning out like a cloak. The music slowed and Rhiannon planted her feet close to the cushion where Lina sat, rolling her hips up and down, snapping her fingers to the beat.
Lina stared breathlessly at the spectacle before her eyes. The fiery curls at the juncture of Rhiannon's thighs were pressed and flattened against the sheer, dark blue fabric. Rhiannon had sweated and damp patches on the trousers clung to her skin... but the large wet patch that spread between her legs in an ever increasing circle of darkening silk had nothing to do with exertion and everything with arousal.
Reaching up a trembling hand, Lina tore the veil she wore away from her face and pushed the turban off, her jet black hair tumbling in curls to the floor. This close, she could smell the musky scent of Rhiannon's desire and it struck an answering chord as an electric thrill jolted up from her core.
Still Rhiannon danced, ice blue eyes fastened on Lina's, her mouth slightly open as she panted, the strawberry pink color on her cheeks creeping downward to join the flush spreading up from her chest.
Beads of sweat sprang up on Lina's forehead and she wiped them away unconsciously with her hand. With a quick tug, her robe was shrugged away from her broad shoulders, revealing a simple white cotton djebellah that had ridden up beneath her, exposing her to the waist. The dark curls of her mount were slick with the evidence of her own excitement.
Rhiannon stepped forward so that Lina's face was mere inches away. Lina slid off her cushion to sit flat on the floor and reaching out, grasped Rhiannon's hips and tugged until she stood with spread thighs directly over Lina's face. Rhiannon stopped dancing and stared down at Lina, who winked an impudent emerald eye. The hands on her hips slid around to grasp her buttocks and Rhiannon gasped deeply when she felt the first wet, hot touch of Lina's tongue sliding over the tight silk that confined her aching core.
On suddenly weak knees, Rhiannon swayed slightly as the silk was pressed up into her, spreading her apart, and Lina's tongue busily lapped at the barely warded flesh, flicking her swollen nub over and over, until Rhiannon balled her hands up into fists and whimpered loudly.
Rhiannon had never before realized exactly how strong her lover was until her legs abruptly gave way... Lina was not only able to support her weight on her hands, but lowered Rhiannon gently to the floor without stopping the delicious movements of her tongue.
Rhiannon lay back on the cushions, thighs spread wide apart as Lina licked and nipped the silk covered folds of her lover's center, her strong hands stretching out to slide beneath the spangled vest and grasp painfully erect nipples, rolling and pinching them gently.
Her breath escaped in a hiss as Rhiannon felt a glorious rush of pure sensation thrumming throughout her body, like a lightning bolt striking her blind to everything but pleasure, wave after wave, each more intense than the last. Hands buried in Lina's hair, Rhiannon lifted her hips and arched her back, her teeth gritted against the scream building in the back of her throat.
Finally, as Lina sucked on her nub, silk rasping against the unbearably sensitive flesh, Rhiannon opened her mouth and wailed, shuddering, hips jolting up and down as the pleasure reached its peak and swept her away, pinwheeling into incandescent feeling... sheer sensation buoyed her along for a long minute, then like a feather blown on the wind, let her down gently, gently, back into Lina's strong arms.
Panting, Rhiannon opened her eyes. Lina had abandoned her position and was laying beside her, pressing gentle kisses on her face. ''Are you ready for your anniversary present, my dear?'' Lina asked softly.
Rhiannon blew out a breath and chuckled. ''You mean it's better than that?'' she asked impishly.
Lina's crow of laughter rang out into the night air... and the man watching the tent from the safety of a secluded dune clenched his hands into fists and trembled.