April 3, 1876
Ruel reminded Ian of a beautiful tiger set to pounce.
Ruel's right hand gripped a bone-handled knife with deadly competence, and an eager smile curved his lips. Stripped to the waist, his muscles gleaming gold-bronze in the lantern light, blue eyes blazing with fierce joy, he circled the huge mulatto holding the machete.
Shock jolted through Ian MacClaren as he peered through the smoke layering the air of the bar at the two men squaring off across the room. Somehow he had not expected Ruel to look so lethal. Yet the reports he had received over the years should have given him some warning, and even as a boy Ruel had never been tame. Certainly no trace of tameness lingered in his brother now.Tiger pad softly, tiger burn bright . . .
The scrap of an old verse popped into Ian's mind, underscoring the impression that had leapt into being the instant he had caught sight of Ruel. The boy had always burned with a restless, volatile energy, but now he cast out an almost incandescent vitality. Time had honed and hardened the faultless symmetry of the face Margaret had once described as having the beauty of a fallen angel, but it still held the riveting magnetism it had always possessed. Strands of tawny white-gold laced the dark brown hair he wore tied back in a queue, adding to the tigerish quality of his appearance.
The mulatto suddenly sliced out with the machete.
Ruel easily avoided the parry and gave a low, pleased laugh. "At last. You were beginning to bore me, Barak."
"Don't just stand there." The woman, Mila, grabbed Ian's arm. "You said if I brought you to him, you would help. Barak will kill him."
"He certainly appears to be trying," Ian murmured. He had been told when he had arrived in town a few hours earlier that she was only one of the gold camp's whores, but she was clearly emotionally involved with Ruel. The circumstance did not astonish him. Drawn by those wicked good looks and careless, joyous paganism, women had gravitated to Ruel's bed before he had reached puberty. However, Ian was surprised he felt no fear the woman's prophecy would prove true. This Barak towered almost seven feet and his bull-like musculature made Ruel's five-foot-eleven physique appear childlike in comparison. Yet Ian felt Ruel would have no more trouble defeating him than he had the bullies who had taunted his brother as a child. "I believe we'll wait and watch awhile. Ruel never liked me to interfere in these matters."
The giant mulatto made another lunge, and Ruel's torso arched catlike as the blade just missed digging into his belly.
"Better," Ruel laughed. "But not good enough. God, you're clumsy."
Barak roared with anger and lunged again.
But Ruel was no longer there.
He had danced with lightning swiftness to the left, and a red slash suddenly appeared on Barak's side. "As clumsy with the machete as you are at dealing from the bottom of the deck. I could teach you a bit about both." He circled the huge man with the quickness of a mongoose with a cobra. "But I don't really think it would be worthwhile. I hate to waste my time, when you'll be dead soon anyway."
Ian stiffened, jarred back to the realization that this was no childhood fight that would end only with black eyes and scraped knuckles. He turned to the woman. "I think we'd better go get the local magistrate to stop this."
She gazed at him in bewilderment. "Magistrate?"
"The law," he said impatiently.
"There's no law here," she said. "You
must stop it. Barak wants Ruel's claim. He cheated only to make Ruel angry enough to fight so he could kill him."
Ian muttered a curse as he looked around the crowded bar. God knows he was no more equipped to step into this battle than he had been for Ruel's boyhood frays at Glenclaren, but he could see no help would be forthcoming from any of the roughly dressed men sitting at the tables in this disreputable hovel; the miners were staring at the two combatants with only amusement and a curiously hungry look distinctly more sinister in nature.
Yet it was becoming evident Ian must do something. He could not permit Ruel to commit murder even in self-defense.
Barak lunged again and Ruel whirled away. A long, bloody cut suddenly appeared on Barak's upper arm.
"You're beginning to bore me, you son of a bitch," Ruel said.
Ian recognized the signs; Ruel was toying with Barak, but he was beginning to get impatient and would soon go on the offensive. He would have to do something-Barak had drawn blood.
Ruel had been a tenth of a second too slow, and Barak's machete had grazed his rib cage.
"Excellent." Incredibly, Ruel nodded with approval. "You should always take advantage of an opponent's overconfidence. Perhaps your wits aren't as thick as I thought."
"You lied to me. You do nothing
." The woman beside Ian released her death grip on his arm. "Don't you understand? He helped
me. He made them–and you will let him die while you stand there and watch Barak–" She darted across the room toward the two men circling each other.
"No!" Ian moved forward, grabbing a whiskey bottle from the table beside him. He heard a shout of protest from one of the miners at the table and murmured, "I do beg your pardon, but I may need this."
Ruel was laughing again, but Ian could detect the slightest hardening in his expression. He was not foolish enough to ignore the warning of Barak's pinprick and would move to finish it now."Barak!" Mila jumped on the giant's back, her wiry arms encircling his thick neck.
Ruel stopped, disconcerted, and then started laughing again. "Get off him, Mila. He's having enough problems."
Barak shook himself like a sodden bear and broke Mila's hold. She fell to her knees on the floor.
Barak whirled toward her, the machete raised.
"No!" The laughter vanished from Ruel's expression. "Me. Not her, you bastard. You want me
." He lunged forward and the tip of his dagger drew a thin red line on the back of Barak's neck. "Do I have your attention, you stupid ox?"
Barak cursed, whirled back to face Ruel, and took a step forward.
Ruel balanced on the balls of his feet, his blue eyes glittering wildly, his nostrils flaring. "Now
, you thieving son of–"
Ian stepped forward and said quietly, "No, Ruel."
Ruel froze. "Ian?" His gaze flew from Barak to Ian, his eyes widened in shock. "What the hell are–"
Barak sprang forward, and the machete sliced into Ruel's shoulder. The blade had been aimed at his heart. If Ruel hadn't spun away at the last moment, it would have cleaved his chest as it had his shoulder.
Ian heard the scream of the woman kneeling on the floor, saw Ruel's face contort with pain, and acted without thinking.
He took a step forward, lifted the whiskey bottle, and brought it down with all his strength on Barak's head.
Glass shattered; liquor sprayed.
The giant grunted, tottered, and fell to the floor.
Ruel swayed, his knees began to buckle.Ian stepped forward and caught him before he could follow Barak to the floor.
"Why–" Ruel stopped, flinching as pain washed over him. "Dammit, Ian, why the hell are–"
"Hush." Ian shifted his hold and picked Ruel up in his arms as easily as if he weighed no more than a child.
"I've come to take you home, lad."
As soon as Ruel opened his eyes he realized he was back in his own shack. He had lain looking at the stars through those cracks in the ceiling too many nights not to recognize his surroundings even through this haze of feverish pain.
Ruel's gaze shifted from the cracks to the man sitting by his cot.
A long, aquiline nose, wide mouth, bright hazel eyes set deep in a face saved from homeliness only by humor and intelligence. Ian's face.
"You're going to be fine. You've had the fever, but you're mending nicely."
Ian's brogue fell pleasantly on Ruel's ears, and for an instant he felt a sharp pang. He rejected the thought that it might be homesickness. Christ, it must be the fever. He had gotten over any maudlin yearnings for Glenclaren the first six weeks after he had left. He whispered, "What are you doing here?"
"I told you." Ian dipped a cloth in a bowl of water by the bed. "I've come to take you home."
"You almost took me home in a coffin. I've always told you to stay out of my way in a fight."
"Sorry. I thought it time I took a hand. You were in a temper, but you didn't really want to kill that lummox."
Ian wrung out the cloth and laid it on Ruel's forehead. "Killing is a mortal sin. Life is much easier when you're not forced to carry around those kinds of burdens. Do you wish a drink of water?"
Ruel nodded, then studied Ian as he reached down and filled the iron dipper from the bucket beside his stool. Ian was in his middle thirties now, but Ruel could see little change brought by the years. The big, loose-limbed strength that had enabled Ian to lift Ruel as if he weighed no more than a feather was clearly still there, as was the neatly barbered black hair, the slow, deliberate way he moved and spoke.
Ian brought the dipper to Ruel's lips, holding it steady while he drank thirstily. "There's stew in the pot on the stove over there. Mila made it only a half hour ago, and it should still be warm."
Ruel shook his head.
"Later, then." Ian returned the dipper to the bucket and gently wiped Ruel's forehead. "This Mila appears to be very loyal to you."
"In a hole like this you cling to the people you can trust.""I assume you're bedding her? She did try to take that machete for you."
Ruel smiled with genuine amusement. "I admit I have a certain talent in that direction, but even my conceit won't permit me to think a woman would risk being beheaded by a machete to keep me between her legs." He deliberately changed the subject. "But she'll keep an eye on me until I'm better. You don't have to stay."
"Are you sure you won't have something to eat? It will strengthen you and I'd like to be able to travel in a fortnight."
"I'm not going with you."
"Of course you are. What do you have here? Mila tells me Barak has recovered and taken over your claim."
"Son of a bitch," Ruel muttered.
"Probably." Ian grimaced. "But I admit to being glad he occupied himself stealing from you instead of wreaking vengeance on me."
"You should have thought of that before you interfered."
"Possibly." He smiled faintly. "Particularly as you weren't able to fight my battle for me as you did when we were boys."
"You were never merciless enough. You could have bested anyone in the glen, but you never learned to go for the jugular. You can't let anyone–"
Ian interrupted. "I suppose the minute you're on your feet you're going to go after Barak and try to retrieve your property?"
Ruel thought about it. "No."
"Very sensible." Ian tilted his head to study Ruel's expression. "But not at all like you. As I remember, you always believed in taking an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."
"Oh, I still do," Ruel said. "But these days, when the issue isn't important, I sometimes let fate exact vengeance for me."
"The claim here was played out a week ago." He smiled with supreme satisfaction. "I'm going to enjoy thinking about that bastard breaking his back working that claim and getting no more than a pouch of gold dust for his trouble."
"I see." Ian paused. "Then your gold mine was another failure like Jaylenburg?"
Ruel stiffened. "What do you know about Jaylenburg?"
"Just that you staked a claim, stayed there for six months, and moved on." Ian dipped the cloth again and wrung it out. "You've moved on a good deal. Australia, California, South Africa . . ."
"You seem very knowledgeable."
"Not really. I paid a young man to find you, but he always managed to just miss you until Krugerville." He shook his head as he laid the cloth on Ruel's forehead. "You're not a boy any longer. You can't chase rainbows for the rest of your life."
"I've never chased rainbows." Ruel smiled faintly. "I was always after the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, never the rainbow itself."
"Gold." Ian pulled a face. "You always told me that you'd find your gold mine and become the richest man in Scotland."
"And I will."
"You ran away from Glenclaren when you were only fifteen and haven't found it yet."
"How do you know?"
Ian glanced around the crudely furnished hut and then up at the cracks in the ceiling. "If you did, you've become more miserly than old Angus MacDonald."
Ruel found his smile widening. "And how is the charming Maggie MacDonald? Did you ever wed?"Ian shook his head. "You know Margaret has her duty to her father. She will not wed while he needs her by his sickbed."
"Still? Good God, at this rate you won't be wed until you're both doddering on the grave."
"It will happen as God wills." Ian changed the subject. "What is Cinnidar?"
Ruel stiffened, his gaze flying to Ian's face. "Cinnidar?"
"It seems to be on your mind. You kept repeating it while you had the fever."
"No, just the one word . . . Cinnidar."
Ruel relaxed. "It's not important. Just a place I visited once."
"You've visited too many places. It's time you came home and put down roots." He paused. "Father's dead."
"I know. I got your letter."
"You didn't answer it."
"There was no point. He had stopped being important to me years ago." He added, "So had Glenclaren."
"I cannot deny that." Ian smiled. "I love every pond, stone, and moth-eaten tapestry of the old place."
"Then go back there."
Ian shook his head. "Not without you." He looked down at the floor, and the next words came awkwardly. "It was not because I did not have love for you that I didn't come after you while Father was alive. I knew he was wrong and treated you badly. It just seemed . . . difficult. I have always regretted that–"
"Guilt?" Ruel shook his head. "For God's sake, I knew you always walked a fine line between the two of us. I didn't expect anything of you."
"I expected it of myself."
For an instant Ruel felt a rush of warmth as he looked at Ian. Affection? God, he had thought those gentler feelings had been burned out of him years before. Affection was dangerous, and it was far safer to skate on the surface of emotion than plunge into that quagmire. He said deliberately, "But then, you always were a fool."
"Aye." Ian smiled gently. "But foolishness or not, I mean to give you back your place at Glenclaren."
Ruel stared at Ian with exasperation mixed with helplessness. Ian had always felt guilty about their father's treatment of Ruel, and now it seemed he was determined to put things right. Ruel was too familiar with his brother's dogged obstinacy not to realize Ian, once set on a course, would not give up. "Why should I go back? There's nothing I want there." He could see no softening in the resolution hardening Ian's features, and for the first time realized Ian might actually become a problem. Christ, he had a hell of a lot to do in the next few months, and he didn't need Ian plodding behind him, trying to lure him away from his goal. "Dammit, I don't want you here."
"You'll get in my way."
"Only until we board the ship. I'll leave you alone once we're on our way home."
"I'm not going to Glenclaren. When I'm well enough to travel I'm going to Kasanpore."
"Not to this Cinnidar?"
"Let's say Kasanpore is a way station on the way to Cinnidar."
Ian frowned. "I don't believe I've ever heard of this Kasanpore."
"India. The city of Kasanpore is the primary residence of the province ruled by the Maharajah of Savitsar."
Ian shook his head. "You'll be much better off at Glenclaren then traipsing off to another heathen country."
"I'm going to Kasanpore," Ruel said through his teeth.
Ian gazed at him for a moment before sighing in resignation. "You have sufficient funds for this journey?"
"The claim produced exceptionally well for over three months. After I give a small nest egg to Mila, I'll still have enough for my purposes."
"Good, then you can afford my company. Unfortunately, Glenclaren is still as land-rich and pound-poor as it was when you were there. I'll go with you and wait until you tire of this foolishness."
"And if I don't?"
"I'll wait some more."
"Ian, dammit, I have something important to do in Kasanpore. I don't have time to–"
"God will provide the time," Ian said tranquilly as he stood up and moved toward the stove. "But you can tell me all about your business in Kasanpore later. I'll get you a bowl of stew and you must stop this arguing and eat. As I said, you'll need your strength for the journey."
May 6, 1876
"A good evening to you, Miss Barnaby. Has no one told you that foreign ladies should not be in this section of town after dark without protection?"
The tone was low, smooth, but an underlying menace darkened the words. Jane's heart lurched and then sped to breakneck pace as she glanced over her shoulder. Only a few yards behind her she saw Prince Abdar and the beautiful young man, Pachtal, who had accompanied him when he had come to question her at the site. Dear God, she had thought she was being so careful, and yet tonight she hadn't even realized she was being followed!She responded instinctively, breaking into a run, flying down the dark, deserted street.
It was too late. They'd been too close. Before she reached the corner, a powerful hand gripped her shoulder and spun her around.
Abdar stood before her. His handsome young companion moved behind her and grabbed her arms, forcing her to drop the knapsack she carried as he pulled both her arms up behind her.
"It's not courteous to run away when I wish to speak to you," Abdar said as he set the lantern he carried down on the ground. "I think we must chastise her for that discourtesy, Pachtal."
Jane bit her lower lip to keep back a scream of agony as Pachtal lifted her left arm and twisted it. Prince Abdar's smooth, childlike face framed beneath the white turban swam through the tears stinging her eyes.
"You were most uncommunicative when we had our little discussion a few days ago. I thought it best we have a more private interview. Now, where is Kartauk?"
"I don't know any Kar–" She broke off as her arm was thrust still higher.
"You can see Pachtal is growing impatient," Abdar said softly. "He prefers the joys of the palace and was not at all amused to spend these last three evenings trying to follow you. Particularly when his efforts proved of no avail."
She tried desperately to think of a way to reach the dagger sheathed in her boot. "Which should have proved to him I can't give you what you wish."
"It proved only that you know our bazaar quite well for a foreigner and can be very elusive. Where is he?"
"I don't know. I told you–" She gasped as Pachtal thrust her arm higher, at the same time giving it a sharp twist that sent another bolt of agony through her. The flame of the lantern in Abdar's hand seemed to waver and dim. Why, she was going to faint, she realized with a dim sense of outrage. No! She had never fainted in her life, and this bastard would not be the one to make her start.
"Again," Abdar ordered the man behind her.
For a long moment, Jane's whole world was pain.
"Why are you so stubborn?" Abdar asked. "You will tell me anyway. You are only a woman and too weak and stupid to resist for long."
Even through the haze of anguish she felt a vague sense of resentment at his words. Though she had been stupid not to realize she had been followed from the bungalow, she was not
"Why suffer like this? What is Kartauk to you?" Pachtal whispered in her ear as his grip tightened on her forearms. "You've gotten what you want from him. Now give him back to His Highness."
"I don't know any Kartauk."
"Is he your lover?" Pachtal whispered. "His Highness believes he must give you great pleasure for you to risk so much. But you will have to give him up. His Highness has need of him."
Abdar's well-shaped hand reached out and cupped her breast through her cotton shirt. "You are not uncomely and will find another man to please you. I would not even be averse to letting you come to my couch."
She wondered what he would do if she spat in his blank, childlike face.
The prince leisurely studied her features. "Yes, she is not all bad. The cheekbones are too high, but the mouth is quite lovely. Let's have a look at her body, Pachtal." He unbuttoned the loose shirt and spread the edges back to reveal her breasts. "Ah, those grotesque mannish garments hide treasures. You are so thin, I would never have guessed these would be so beautifully full." He cupped her naked breasts, weighing them as if they were melons. "She reminds me a little of Mirad, Pachtal."
"Let–me–go," she said through her teeth.
"Very nice." Pachtal ignored her command as he drew closer and peered over her shoulder at Abdar's hands cradling her breasts. "It's difficult to tell in this light, but the nipples are rosier, I think. Mirad's were like huge purple grapes."
She started to struggle.
"No!" Pachtal's grip tightened with bruising force on her arms. "You will not refuse His Highness when he honors you with his touch."
"I have never had a foreign woman in my bed. I believe you could amuse me for quite a long time." Abdar smiled as he brought her single thick braid over her shoulder and quickly unfastened it. "Of course, these hideous trousers and shirt will not be permitted. I will have you perfumed and given proper womanly garments." He ran his fingers through her loosened hair that now flowed halfway down her back in a wild stream. "Dark red. It looked closer to brown when in the braid. Interesting." His hands returned to her breasts as his voice lowered to honey softness. "I would like to see you bound naked and helpless in my bedchamber at the palace. And why not? No one would ever know if I decided to take you back to my palace and teach you the submission due me."
A chill went through her as she remembered the tales Kartauk had told her of Abdar. "I'm not one of your subjects. I would be missed. Your father will not permit this."
Abdar raised his brows. "He will not object to my amusing myself. Women have little value for my father."
She had no argument to give him on that score. In his own way, the maharajah was as arrogant and self-serving as his son. She said quickly, "But his railroad does have value for him. And my father needs my help to complete the railroad."
"I have observed that you seem to aid him. Perhaps I will reconsider." He lifted his gaze to meet her own. "If you give me your lover, Kartauk."
The combination of pain and revulsion at his touch was making her stomach churn. "I don't know any Kartauk."
He nodded at Pachtal, and she had to grit her teeth to keep from crying out as another agonizing pain shot through her.
"You're beginning to anger me. I have waited too long already, and I want Kartauk tonight. Now, tell me the truth."
She tried to block out the pain and panic and think. Obviously it would be useless to continue to deny any knowledge of Kartauk. Abdar would continue to torture her until he got what he wanted. "Very well. What do you want to know?"
"That is sensible. You admit you know Kartauk?"
She nodded jerkily.
He nodded to the man behind her and she was suddenly released. "Better and better. You see how we reward cooperation? We have no desire to cause you discomfort."
He was lying. She had seen too many men who liked to prove their power over women with pain and subjugation when she was at Frenchie's not to recognize the breed when she encountered it.
"You've left your bungalow three nights in a row to come into the city. You've been meeting Kartauk?"
He glanced down at the knapsack she had dropped on the ground. "And taking him food?"
She nodded again.
"That is good. It would displease me if Kartauk suffered harm or deprivation." He reached out and gently grasped her throat. "Now, you will tell me where he is so that I may place him again under my protection."
"He's hiding in one of the shops that border the river."
"Yellow sod. With a dirty striped awning.""You describe half the shops in Kasanpore." He frowned. "You will take me there."
"You don't need me. I've told you what you wanted to know."
"But is it the truth? I think I will make certain before I permit you to leave us. You carry the lantern, Pachtal. I will escort the lady."
Pachtal released her arms and moved around to stand beside Abdar before reaching down to pick up the lantern from the street.
Jane's lids lowered swiftly to veil her eyes as sudden hope spiraled through her. Pachtal's action left her back unguarded, and she doubted if she would get a better opportunity to escape.
She meekly dropped her eyes as she whimpered, "Why won't you let me go back to my bungalow? I've told you what–" In midsentence she lowered her head and launched herself at Abdar.
The top of her head crashed into his mouth.
He screamed in pain, his hand releasing her throat and flying to his bleeding lower lip.
She whirled and tore down the twisting, cobbled street.
She heard the pounding of running steps behind her and Abdar's venomous cursing.She turned left at the corner, almost tripping over a beggar huddled in the shadows.She caught her balance, avoided the beggar's outstretched grasping hands, and ran on.
The beggar hurled obscenities after her and then let out a shrill screech of pain. She risked a glance over her shoulder and saw the beggar doubled over in the street, clutching his stomach as Pachtal and Abdar ran past him. They were gaining on her, swiftly closing the distance between them.
Panic choked her, and for an instant she couldn't remember which way to turn. Left. Right led to the river. She must go left and try to lose herself in the bazaar. The day after she had decided to help Kartauk she had spent the entire morning in the bazaar, familiarizing herself with every stall and corner of the huge marketplace. Darkness had just fallen, and the bazaar would still be crowded. She could hide among the stalls until Abdar gave up the chase.
She turned the corner and burst into the crowd of people in the large square.
Copper lanterns hanging on awning-covered booths. A camel burdened with rolled carpets moving with ponderous gait through the throng.
Noise. Beggars whining. Merchants calling out their wares.
She heard Abdar cursing behind her, but she was already darting through the throng and between the stalls. She passed a leather vendor, a pink-turbaned cleaner of ears wielding his small silver spoon in the orifice of a customer seated on a low stool, a gold merchant, a kiosk hung with wicker cages containing raucously squawking parrots. She glanced behind her again and her heart sank. As people recognized Abdar, they were making way for him.
Then, to her relief, she saw a small female elephant burdened with copper pots and pans and her master on the aisle that bordered the western edge of the bazaar. It was common knowledge Abdar hated elephants and avoided them at all cost. If given a choice of direction, he would surely choose another aisle. She ran ahead into the thick crowd of people gathered around a vegetable booth to lose herself from Abdar's view, turned left at the next booth, ran past the elephant, and then dove behind a fishmonger's stall. She crouched low, moving far back into the shadows.
The overpowering stench of fish, elephant dung, garbage, and a heavy Oriental perfume drifting from the stall next to the fishmonger's nearly gagged her. She tried to hold her breath, her eyes straining as she peered through the small opening between the stalls. She could see only the lower portion of bodies and tried frantically to remember what Abdar and Pachtal had been wearing. Dear God, all she could recall was Abdar's smiling, childlike face and the vicious beauty of Pachtal's well-shaped lips as he twisted her arm. The memory started her heart pounding so hard, she was sure it could be heard even above the clamor of the bazaar.
"Would you care to enlighten me why we are both in this extremely uncomfortable position?"She whirled to peer into the shadows to the left of her.
Li Sung sat a few yards away with one leg folded beneath him and his bad leg stretched before him.
"What are you doing here?" she whispered.
"I saw you dart behind this disgustingly aromatic stall and thought it best to join you."
"I told you to wait at the city gate."
"And I chose to wait at the mouth of the street from which I knew you generally entered the bazaar. I decided I was too conspicuous at the gate. You know they do not like the Chinese here in Kasanpore, and I believe my pigtail was in great danger of being lifted from my–"
"Hush." She turned back to scan the street. "Abdar."
Li Sung went still. "Himself?"
She nodded, her gaze searching the flow of people passing the small opening. "With the same man who came to the site three days ago. They followed me from the bungalow, but I think we're safe. If he'd seen me run back here, he would have come by now." She scowled as she settled back on her heels. "But I lost the knapsack with the food."
Li Sung's gaze wandered over her wild, tousled hair and the glimpse of pale breasts revealed by her unbuttoned shirt. His mouth tightened grimly. "And is that all you lost?"
She knew that expression very well. If she wasn't careful, Li Sung's protective instincts would be aroused, and that must be avoided at all costs. "No." She grinned. "I also lost my temper. I butted my head against Abdar's lip and split it like a walnut and then ran like the wind." She quickly buttoned her shirt before reaching into the deep pocket of her denim trousers and pulling out a small chisel. "Give this to Kartauk. I bought it in the bazaar yesterday, and I'll bet he'll like it better than food anyway. I'll try to get another knapsack to you tomorrow."
Li Sung shook his head. "From now on, stay close to either the site or the bungalow. It's too dangerous now that Abdar suspects you. We still have a little bread and cheese left, and I'll come and get the supplies from now on."
"Very well, I'll leave a knapsack behind the pile of rails at the supply yard every other evening." She reached into her pocket and slipped a key from a small brass ring. "I'll keep the gate of the supply yard locked from now on to make it safer for you. Be careful."
"And you also." Li Sung took the key before rising with difficulty and limping toward her. "Turn around."
"I'm going to rebraid your hair. This disarray displeases me."
"You do not want to call any more attention to yourself than you already have. If you had a fine black mane like my own, there would be no problem, but your hair is too gaudy not to be noticed."
"It's not gaudy," she protested.
"Ugly, then. Hair was meant to be black, not red. God clearly made the Chinese and then grew weary and careless with his palette. I cannot see why he lacked the discrimination as to experiment with yellow and red and . . ." He trailed off, his fingers quickly plaiting the bright strands into their usual thick single braid.
Over the years Li Sung had performed this task a thousand times, and the familiar ritual calmed her. She could feel her heartbeat steadying and the panic gradually leaving her.
"Have you been well?" Li Sung asked. "No more fever?"
"Not for over two weeks."
"But you're still taking the quinghao
I gave you?"
"I'm not a foolish child, Li Sung. I know I have to keep well. I lost almost a month of work when I was ill."
"And almost died. You forgot to add that unimportant detail." He paused. "You are foolish to protect this man, you know. He is no stray puppy."
"You know you like him."
He thought about it. "He is amusing, but it is dangerous to like Kartauk."
"Well, I like him."
"Because you think him without defense, but he is not without weapons. Get in his way and he'll pass over you like a runaway locomotive."
He was probably right, but she knew she still could not give Kartauk up to Abdar. "He did me a favor. You know I was desperate."
"He did himself a favor. He was hungry and you fed him." He finished the braid and then took a scrap of string from his denim trousers and secured it. "If Patrick finds out about Kartauk, he will be angry."
She tensed. "He won't know."
"Unless Abdar decides he wishes to involve him."
"He won't do that. Kartauk said Abdar doesn't want his father to know he's looking for him." Jane tossed back her braid. "And Patrick won't ask questions. He's too busy building this blasted railroad."
"You mean he is too busy drinking and whoring and letting you build his railroad."
She didn't bother to deny the charge as she would have done with anyone else. "He'll be better once we've left Kasanpore."
"You said that about Yorkshire." He turned her around and began to button her blouse. "And with every passing day you grow thinner and more weary and Patrick grows lazier and does not see." He added softly, "Or does not care."
"He does care." She jerked away from him. "He just doesn't know what to–the heat affects him."
"It certainly gives him a great thirst."
She could not deny that fact either, she thought wearily. These days Patrick started drinking in the afternoon and didn't stop until he staggered off to bed at midnight. But surely his escalating drinking was being caused by this inferno of a country. Heaven knows, the difficulties they had faced in England seemed minor compared to suffocating heat, unskilled workers, and a maharajah whose impossible demands and pettish threats had driven them to the brink of bankruptcy. "I don't want to talk about it." She glanced cautiously out into the aisle before rising to her feet. "I have to get back to the bungalow and get some sleep. We're starting to lay the track on the bridge over Sikor Gorge tomorrow."
"And Patrick will be nowhere within a mile of the site.""He will. He promised me that–" She stopped as she met Li Sung's steady gaze and then burst out, "And if he's not, I won't care. It's no hardship. I like it."
"You like doing the work and Patrick getting the credit?"
"He needs me."
"So you give and give until there is no more to give." Li Sung raised his hand as she started to speak. "But why should I complain? I take as much as Patrick."
"Nonsense. You've always worked harder than anyone on the line." She stood up and moved cautiously out of the shadows toward the aisle.
"What if Abdar is waiting for you at the bungalow?"
"I'll circle and go in the back way." She paused to smile gently at him over her shoulder. "Stop worrying about me. Just keep Kartauk safe and tell him I'm trying to find a way to slip him out of Kasanpore."
"He is not impatient." He looked down at the chisel she had given him. "Sometimes I wonder if he is even conscious of the passage of time."
She knew what he meant. She had also seen Kartauk in that oblivious state. "He can't stay here forever with Abdar searching for him. We'll have to get him away." She hesitated as a sudden thought occurred to her. "You weren't waiting here in the bazaar because you'd just come from Zabrie?"
Li Sung gazed at her impassively. "Why would you assume that?"She persisted. "Did you?"
He shrugged. "A man has needs."
"Abdar saw you at the site with me. It's not safe for you to be seen in the city."
"I will make sure I do not lead him to Kartauk."
"That's not the question. It's not safe for you to–"
"It is not your concern."
She could feel him closing against her, drawing back into himself, and felt a surge of helplessness and frustration. Sometimes Li Sung appeared as old as Buddha and at other times he was only a sensitive, prickly, proud young man. She could not tell him it was very much her concern and that what had started as an act of compassion might now be a magnet drawing him into a net. "Will you at least promise to be careful?"
He smiled. "Always."
It was the only concession she was going to be able to wrest from him, but if the danger continued, she knew she would have to do something about Zabrie. "See that you are." She didn't wait for an answer as she glided from behind the stall, looking cautiously both ways before beginning to make her way swiftly through the bazaar.
Excerpted from The Tiger Prince by Iris Johansen. Copyright © 2007 by Iris Johansen. Excerpted by permission of Fanfare, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.