Arabian Nights with a Rake - By Bronwyn Scott

Chapter I

Northern Desert of Algeria, May, 1833

Alex Grayfield unwrapped the long lengths of his turban and breathed a deep lungful of night air, expelling it with a long “Ahhh.” On the nearing horizon, the flickering of torch lights illuminated a massive array of tents, a Bedouin village rising from the sands. The faint sounds of music and laughter beckoned welcomingly across the distance. He took another deep breath and closed his eyes in satisfaction. Beside him, Crispin Ramsden’s horse shifted on the sands.

“Do you smell what I smell?” Alex exhaled almost reverently. God, he loved the desert. Out here, he was free.

“Trouble?” Crispin gave a low chuckle.

“Women.”

“Is there a difference?”

They laughed together in the rising darkness, spurring their horses forward, both of them eager to arrive at the encampment now that the journey was nearly done. Algiers, with its narrow streets and smells of fish and coffee, was two days behind them, the edge of the desert before them.

“You can’t really smell them at this distance.” Crispin challenged good-naturedly, pulling his horse alongside.

“Can’t you?” Alex couldn’t resist the gibe. He smiled. “I can smell incense and wine, meat roasting in its own juices on a spit. Only women can conjure such delicious smells.”

“Where there’s a woman, there’s danger.” Crispin warned and not without reason. Europe was littered with his bedroom intrigues.

“Well, you would know best on that score.” Alex shrugged. “There’s bound to be danger anyway, women notwithstanding.” Their journey into the desert was no pleasure trip. He and Crispin had been sent to this gathering of Bedouins to take the political temperature of the nomads.

Algiers had capitulated to the French, and Britain wanted to know if there was anything to be gained by supporting the desert rebels rallying against the French occupation. Guerrilla forces under the Emir of Mascara, Abd al Qadir, were already amassed and established after their victory. In November, the emir’s army had stopped a French advance into the desert. Buoyed by the emir’s success, would others join the fight to liberate Algiers? If so, perhaps Britain might covertly assist in an attempt to offset the growing power of French colonialism. Alex knew as well as Crispin the import of their mission. He who controlled the desert controlled North Africa.

“Do we have a connection or are we just showing up and hoping we aren’t killed on the spot?” Crispin turned the conversation towards more serious issues now that their appearance at the camp was imminent. They weren’t the first team to attempt to arrive here, although they might be the first team to arrive intact. Six months ago, Lord Sutcliffe’s entourage, including his daughter, had set out from Algiers. But they’d never arrived at their destination. The entire group was presumed most tragically dead.

“Your Arabic is fluent enough to pass,” Crispin mused, “but no one would believe I was anything other than an Englishman once I opened my mouth.”

“They might think you’re French and that would be far worse.” Alex joked.

Crispin’s French was impeccable and had been immensely useful in the circles they had penetrated in Algiers. But it was Alex’s Arabic—compliments of growing up as a British diplomat’s son in Cairo—that they’d rely on out here in the desert.

“We have an introduction to Sheikh Muhsin ibn Bitar through my father’s connections in Algiers,” Alex offered. Beyond that, it was too complicated to explain the circuitous network of friendships so common to the way of life in the Arab world.

Crispin nodded, not expecting more detail. Like Alex, Crispin had had enough experience in this part of the world to know how things worked. An introduction would be all they needed. This gathering was a happy occasion. A moussem like this one brought the wandering tribes together for a celebration and the exchange of news. It would be a prime opportunity to hear from many tribes at once.

Truth be told, Alex was looking forward to the moussem. There would be food and dancing, competitions and music. They approached the outer circle of tents and Alex smiled. If he was charming and careful, there’d be women too. Ah, life was good.

She would get one chance to escape. If she was over-careful, she’d miss her opportunity. If she was over-hasty…well those consequences were too horrific to contemplate.

Susannah Sutcliffe eased back into the tent, letting the flap fall discreetly. For six months, since her father’s death in a desert skirmish, she’d lived in the awkward limbo of the captive-slave. Muhsin ibn Bitar desired her greatly, which meant she’d not been sorely