manner as I could, I related to him the potential value of honeyseekers as comparative subjects, and the necessity for feeding them upon eucalyptus nectar to maintain proper health. âWe are told you have some here in your gardens,â I said. âIf I were permitted to see the stand for myself, I might judge whether it would provide enough sustenance for a breeding pair. Should that be the case, then we will have my honeyseekers shipped here, to supplement our research.â
During this explanation, the sheikh had been looking fixedly at the centerpiece of the fountain, with an expression that said the sight did not bring him much pleasure, but was preferable to the alternative. As I came to a close, he opened his mouth to replyâbut he was forestalled by the entrance of another visitor.
I had heard this one approach as I spoke: a clatter in the courtyard, as of a horseâs hooves on the pavement, followed by a brief exchange of speech, too muffled for me to hear. But I did not realize the horseman was coming inside until the sheikhâs gaze shot to the archway through which Tom and I had entered. From behind me a voice rang out in Akhian, saying, âBrother, I have bad news.â
If Husam ibn Ramiz had disappointed my expectations of a desert nomad, this man fulfilled them. He wore the dusty, bleached-linen robe, the boots of worn camel leather, the dark cloak over it all. His headscarf flared behind him as he strode in, kept in place by its encircling cord, and he even had one corner of the scarf drawn up over his nose and mouth, to keep the dust out. He reached up to unfasten this veil as he spokeâbut even before that covering dropped, I knew him.
Instinct alone kept me from whispering, âSuhail.â
He was in a bad temper; that was obvious from the jarring motion of his stride. Dismay overwrote this as he realized the sheikh was not alone: his momentum faltered just past the threshold, and he said, âMy apologies. I didnât realize you had guests.â
I had put my own scarf across my face in deference to the sheikh; now I turned my head, so that even my eyes were concealed. My heart was beating triple-time. Gears clicked together in my head, fitting together with the precision of clockwork. I no longer needed to ask why the sheikh detested me so, for I knew the troubles I had experienced with my own family, those members of it who disapproved of my life and my actions. And I knew that my behaviour in these next few momentsâmine and Suhailâsâwould leave an indelible stamp on all that followed.
âYou,â the sheikh said in a tone fit to freeze water, âare supposed to be in the desert.â
âI know,â Suhail said. âThe Banu SafrâWait.â He changed to Scirling. âWilker, is that you?â
Tom rose awkwardly from his chair. âIt is. Iâdid not expect to see you here.â
I almost laughed. I had imagined that trying to find Suhail would be like looking for one grain of sand in the desert. He could have been anywhere in Akhia, or nowhere in the country at all. Instead he was the brother of the very man with whom our duties required us to work.
Suhail sounded baffled, as well he might. âNor I. What brings you to Akhia?â
I could not continue staring at the tiles of the courtyard floor forever, however complex and fascinating their design. I lifted my head, gazing at a spot just to Suhailâs right, and gave him a polite nod. âPeace be upon you, sir.â
He stared at me. My face was half concealed, but surely he must recognize my voice, as I had his. And what other Scirling woman would be sitting here with Tom Wilker?
I could read nothing from his expression, so blank had it become. Perhaps he did not recall me after all. Then he drew in a breath and gave me a brief nod, not touching his heart as he might have done. âAnd upon you, peace.â He directed his attention once more to