“You are the reason we have been banned from four countries.” Nathaniel said to me as he offered his hand. I took it and dismounted from the sprightly arabian mare. “Kindly inform me before this becomes the fifth.”
“And ruin a surprise? I know how much you enjoy them.” I replied as the silk toes of my boots sunk deep into the sand. Nathaniel didn’t release me, for which I was glad. Without lent strength I would have looked like a child struggling through surf. As it was the dry air already had my throat itching uncomfortably.
Nathaniel sighed. “I am serious–”
“You, serious?” I interrupted dryly, widening my eyes in mock disbelief. I abandoned the expression quickly, the desert sun was high and bright in a painfully azure sky.
“I am serious.” He repeated without hesitation or rise. Nathaniel knew best to ignore my quips if he wanted the conversation to progress. “We barely escaped with our lives last time someone ushered us from their borders. Half the company is dead or in Ottoman prisons.” He said, softly this time. We were closer to the camp. No reason to scare anyone prematurely.
It was true, the last venture had not been what I’d hoped, on more than a few counts. But I’d buried those thoughts, they could come later once I had the time to dwell. “They knew the risks when they agreed to trespass on ancient holy sites, no one should be surprised that our presence ruffled sensibilities.”
A hint of humor twitched at the corner of Nathaniel’s mouth, though from my understatement or something else I did not know. The entire expedition watched my approach, curious and critical. I tightened my grip on Nathaniel’s arm, if there was ever a time to fall, this wasn’t it.
One of the many men, a sun browned fellow with an impressive set of white whiskers, ambled up to us and bowed, to me, not Nathaniel. “Lady Blackwood.” My measure of him increased. He’d erred on the side of a title. That was smart, if technically incorrect.
“Mr. Amos Morley I presume.” I exchanged Nathaniel’s hand for his, forcing Mr. Morley to provide balance as I made note to research other footwear options when given the occasion. I forced him to slow his pace, one because my shoes were still ankle deep in sand each time I took a step, and because I had no intention of letting my already labored breathing become noticeable. “May I present my associate Mr. Ailey. I’m glad to finally meet outside correspondence.”
At my side Nathaniel gave only a gruff nod. Switching between gentlemanly chaperon and glowering deterrent was one of his many talents.
Amos Morley sent him a wary look before turning a snake-oil smile on me. “Everything is on schedule. We’ve breached the second chamber this morning. We expect the third by tomorrow.” He spoke well for a grave robber, but then, so did I.
I nodded, hiding my annoyance at how far he’d pressed in my absence. “Wonderful. I look forward to seeing your handiwork tomorrow.” I smiled at him and looked forward.
He would show me worn baubles and broken pots, and then balk when informed I would be joining them at the dig site. I trusted the man to get me into the tomb, and if my search finally proved fruitful, I needed to be there to reap the spoils before Morley got a chance to be greedy. The qualities that made a good treasure hunter do not make for solid business partners.
The oppressive heat and weighty air wasn’t helping me keep up. We were nearly to the middle of the camp when the pressure waiting in my chest bloomed. “If we cou–” I didn’t finish the sentence before the first swell of the coughing fit hit. Nathaniel was at my side, cutting between Amos and I almost roughly. With his hand at my back, with the other supporting my elbow, Nathaniel shielded me as I coughed loudly and cursed the universe silently.
Finally the fit subsided after a few agonizing minutes. Most of the camp’s men possessed the decency to avert their attention. Mr. Morley had not been one of them. “Are you ill?” He asked stepping forward as far as Nathaniel would allow.
Of course I was ill, what else would cause a young woman to double over and hack her lungs out? I didn’t snap at him. Instead I smiled, still holding my handkerchief before my mouth. “I’m quite alright. Its the sudden change of climates.” Better he think me a weakling than an plague bringer.
He nodded, not convinced in the slightest. I tossed another silent curse towards the heavens for good measure. It would be a battle to get at the dig site now. They’d use my health as an excuse, never mind it was the impetus for the entire expedition “The desert air can be harsh.” He said finally.
“Quite.” I agreed.
Amos Morley left then with a muttered excuse about checking our dinner arrangements or something along those lines. He didn’t want to play nursemaid, and that was fine, I suspected he’d be horrible at it.
Nathaniel did not ask if I was alright as I leaned against his arm. He knew I was not. Nor did he bring up caution again as we moved to find our lodging, that particular conversation would not have been received well.
I did not have the time for caution. The soiled black handkerchief was a distressing reminder of that still crumpled in my palm. In the past months I’d switched from white silk to darker colors in order to hide the blood.
“Must you always be the center of attention?” Nathaniel finally broke the silence and my morbid thoughts.
I blinked at him, stunned at the question. Nathaniel had managed a jest. Then I breathed out, feeling some of the tension ease from my shoulders, and laughed. “Until the day I die.”