Rafe let go of the rope several feet from the ground, dropping easily to the wooden dock. He didn’t have to glance back to know it had been quickly draw up behind him; no one would be given the slightest chance to board the Dark Wind in his absence.
Nearly a head taller than most of the local residents, he tried not to draw attention to himself. Rounding his broad shoulders and stooping slightly, he walked toward the center of the city and in the quiet of the early morning had no trouble sensing the three shadows at his back, men he’d easily spotted while being lowered from the airship. Although expecting the unwanted company, he had no intention of arriving at the el-Ahmar compound until he was damn good and ready, so losing them was vital.
But first, a good strong cup of caffé was in order and if things hadn’t changed over the last thirteen years, he knew just the place.
Half an hour later, Rafe sat at a small table under the awning of a colorful orange and yellow tent, sipping his second cup of the dark, rich brew Ha’Roon was famous for. One side of his face remained hidden, but he’d loosened a corner of the cloth to drink the caffé. Savoring the delicious drink, his gaze focused on the Dark Wind in the distance. Surrounded by the other ships—large frigates, provision carriers and a few pleasure balloons—tethered along the harbor pilings, she stood apart from them like a jewel. Watching a large wooden pallet, laden with bundles and baskets, being hoisted to the supplies hold, Rafe didn’t need his spying glass to see that Treb and Hamson were directing the lift and that Aman’s skill in procuring anything, anywhere remained true, even in Ha’Roon. She would be ready to sail well before nightfall.
Rafe’s eyes wandered over the sleek lines of his ship as he took another taste of the strong, potent drink. Her hull gleamed with a richness that rivaled the ebony hue of his caffé, the Piedra wood light as air, durable as stone; her sails, black silk woven from the strongest threads, had been made in a tiny village on an obscure island in the Sea of Storms by a handful of ancient, skilled women—repayment for saving Jai-Li, though in truth, she had saved him first. The Dark Wind’s decks and rails were hewn from the Canela tree, the heady scent of cinnamon permeated the air whenever it rained. There was nothing more exhilarating to him than watching those sails fill with wind, and feel the power surge beneath his feet as she raced through the skies, glorious and free.
Never could he have imagined, as he lay dying in the jungles of Amazonia, that his fevered dreams and ramblings would result in such an exotic and beautiful vessel, the one thing left in this world that he truly loved.
His musings were interrupted by a slight shift in the air behind him. Leaping to his feet, Rafe pivoted and grabbed the man’s raised arm in one fluid motion, twisting it painfully until the cudgel dropped with a clatter onto the table before rolling to the ground. Hard, icy gray eyes narrowed on his assailant. “You spilled my caffé.” Pulling the struggling man toward him, Rafe hissed, “Tell your Mor’Abat I will see him soon.” Then he bent lower, purposefully allowing the shemagh cloth to shift, revealing the whole of his features. He only had to wait a moment before shock washed over the man’s face, his eyes wide in disbelief. Satisfied at the reaction, Rafe shoved the man away, waiting until the el-Ahmar spy had disappeared before quickly covering his face and entering the caffé seller’s tent. Nodding to the old man seated next to a large samovar, Rafe slipped out the back, the delicious aroma of freshly brewed caffé floating in the air behind him.
Standing in the gloom between two large tents, Rafe looked across the dusty market street and watched as two men joined the one who had tried to bash him over the head a few moments ago. Agitated, the man punctuated his account with wild, slashing gestures toward his face as the other two listened in dawning horror. Rafe chuckled quietly to himself, perversely amused that all it had taken to rid himself of the Mor’Abat shadows had been to show his face.
A few hours later, Rafe had managed to slip past the compound’s armed guards, then narrowly avoided a run-in with his three shadows, fortunately too busy hurrying toward the great tent at the end of a long, wide avenue to notice him.
After carefully searching numerous tents for Elissa, he was concerned to hear she was being kept isolated and under guard in a small tent next to the Mor’Abat’s pavilion. Rafe had hoped for a simple rescue, though that had been more wishful thinking than a belief that things would ever be that easy.
With one final look over his shoulder at the Dark Wind, Rafe stepped out of the shadows and walked across the avenue toward the two men standing guard on either side of the pavilion’s main entrance. They stiffened when he approached and drew their swords, bristling with hostility as if he had appeared from thin air by some foul magic.
“The el-Ahmar’s most illustrious and benevolent ruler is expecting me.” He nodded his head slightly, glad the shemagh hid the grin behind his bullshit. “Tell the exalted one that Batiste is here.”
One of the guards turned sharply and strode into the tent while the other blocked the opening with his body and the wicked scimitar used by all the desert tribes. Rafe waited patiently, appearing completely at ease though he was aware of everything around him even as myriad obstacles, plans and scenarios played through his mind.
The first guard reappeared and motioned him inside, holding wide one side of the tent flap. Rafe ducked through the opening, then stood for a moment to get his bearings while his eyes adjusted to the more subdued lighting after the harsh desert sun. When his weapons were taken, he didn’t protest, nor did he volunteer the blade in his boot when the guards overlooked it in their excitement with his pistol and Jambiya. Rafe made a mental note of which guard held the dagger. He didn’t care about the pistol, but he definitely wasn't going to lose a weapon that had been earned under fire and paid for in blood.
A prod at his back moved Rafe forward into an opulent and flamboyant space. Blood-red dominated, in the silken cushions and pillows, in the beautifully woven carpets, and the long, gossamer streamers that covered the walls and draped in billowy folds from the vaulted ceiling, the slightest hint of air giving them graceful movement. Several women worked at various chores around the fringes of the room, and a score of tribal elders sat cross-legged on the floor, divided equally along both sides of the central aisle.
At the far end of the room on a raised platform, lounging casually against a mound of cushions, Kardeeb, leader of el-Ahmar, the Red Tribe, was being fed large, ruby-colored grapes by one of his handmaidens. An ugly man, with an enormous, bulbous nose, small black eyes, and hair of an odd, burnished shade of copper that hung in dozens of braided tangles past his shoulders. A long, thin mustache, framing a cruel mouth, was woven into a wiry beard that reached the middle of his chest. His robe was brilliant red, the hem and sleeves edged with intricate designs stitched in gold thread.
Rafe wasn't fooled by the nonchalant posturing. The malevolent glitter in the man’s eyes was clearly evident, even from a distance. Out of respect, he partially uncovered his face, bowed deep, then carefully said, “I am arrived, Mor’Abat, as requested.”
Kardeeb slapped the girl’s hand away, several grapes bouncing down the steps of the platform and rolling across the carpet. He sat up, stiff and angry. “You are here, but not as requested! You should have come before me the moment you arrived in Ha’Roon, as is required by tribal law.”
Slowly walking down the center of the room, Rafe said softly, tempering the edge of his own anger. “I have not broken tribal law. I am not the accused, I am the negotiator.”
Murmurs rose and fell between the elders. Kardeeb waved a hand for silence.
“And yet, your past transgressions have assuredly broken—”
“I am not here to answer for whatever crimes you imagine have been committed in the past, Kardeeb. Although, if you want to get personal, I could lay several at your feet.”
Leaping off the cushions, Kardeeb began shouting and stomping across the platform, sending pillows flying as he viciously kicked them out of his way, servants cowering from his rage. Swallowing his loathing of the man, Rafe took a deep breath, determined not be goaded into making a mistake…like killing the bastard in a room full of his loyal tribesmen.
When Kardeeb paused in his rant for breath, Rafe interjected calmly, “You have my brother’s woman. I am here to pay the death penalty fees as required by your laws. There is nothing else to discuss.” He hesitated, his next words risky if he was wrong, but he had to keep Kardeeb from doing something stupid, and right now, stalling was the only idea he had. Certain the flag of el-Azraq—the Blue Tribe—had not been flying over that ruler’s pavilion—meaning the Mor’Abat wasn't in residence for a legal ruling on tribal law—Rafe murmured, “Don’t force me to call for an arbitration of the Four, Kardeeb. All it would take is one word.”
“You dare threaten me?” Kardeeb spat, hate thick in his throat.
Ignoring the question, Rafe said, “Instead, here’s my proposal: You take the money, we go merrily on our way, and I don’t bring the wrath of the Dark Wind down upon your heads.” At Kardeeb’s shout of outrage, Rafe raised a hand to forestall another long, boring tirade and walked determinedly to the base of the platform. Coldly he said, “Enough, Kardeeb. I want to see my brother’s wife. Now.”
The two men faced off, barely an inch between them as the anger grew; a small spark—a word, a gesture—and the fire would ignite.
Sensing the danger, six of the elders quickly approached. Rafe allowed one old man to push him back a foot or so, then ignoring the furious hissing and sharp rebuttals of the group, he was contemplating how best to retrieve his dagger with a minimum of bloodshed, when Kardeeb barked an order. In the sudden silence, Rafe heard a small commotion at his back.
Turning, he watched as a tall, slender woman was brought into the tent. Completely covered in the drab brown robes of a servant, with a veil hiding her face, she shuffled toward him, held at the upper arms by two of his shadows. When the figure was a few feet away from where Rafe stood, Kardeeb ordered them to halt.
This isn't right, Rafe thought. Granted, he hadn’t seen Elissa in well over a decade, but how would she have grown taller in that time? Surely his memory of a small, delicate woman held more truth than this female standing before him now.
“Take off the veil,” he ordered. “Let me see your face.” When she made no move to comply, Rafe began to laugh. He glared over his shoulder at the treacherous Mor'Abat. “You think to trick me with one of your slaves? You will get nothing but dishonor for this deceit, Kardeeb.”
The promise of a reckoning in his voice, Rafe stepped close to the woman. “Where did you get my brother’s ring?” Before anyone could react, his hand shot out, ripping the veil off her head. The hood of the robe kept him from seeing her clearly, though dark green eyes met his, swimming with unshed tears, bright with pain. He growled low in his throat. “Who are—?”
His words were choked off when she wrenched away from the guards and threw her arms around his neck. “Please,” she whispered frantically in his ear, “you must help me. Elissa was taken in the desert. She gave me the ring, made me hide, told me to find you.” Rafe felt every tremor in the body pressed against him; felt heartbeats racing in her chest, felt the struggle as she tried to breathe. “Please, you have my vow to tell you everything, just help me get away.”
With her voice ringing in his ears, Rafe pulled back and looked full into her face, just in time to watch her eyes roll back in her head and he found himself reluctantly holding an unconscious stranger in his arms instead of the woman he’d come to rescue.
Damn. Here was a scenario that had never crossed his mind.