To someone unfamiliar with its secrets the wall around the Gregory Estate was impenetrable. It was composed of rough bricks and glued together with clumps of mortar and reached ten feet in height. It formed a square around the grounds of the estate, shielding its orchards and gardens from the harsh desert on the other side.
But I knew this wall. My bare feet knew where to find the cracks in the mortar, and my fingers knew which bricks wouldn't crumple beneath my weight. I hoisted myself to the top of the wall, so I could look over and feel the desert breeze on my face. It smelt of grit and dust, and it whipped my brown hair into my face. I smiled into it. The afternoon sun cast a bronze glow down on the ocean of sand that stretched out before me. I could see for miles, but there was nothing to see, just desert and shadows, until something caught my attention.
It was a rolling cloud of dust, too small to draw much attention. It was barley a blip on the horizon, but it was coming closer and growing larger with each passing minute. I pulled myself further up the wall and swung my legs over the edge and watched as the cloud approached. I squinted into it, and could just barley see a dark shape moving within it. I clutched the wall to keep my balance, sucking in a breath. No one traveled alone through the desert. It was suicide.
I couldn't take my eyes off them, and I watched until my bottom was sore from the brick, and my fingers ached from clutching the top of the wall, and I knew I had better climb down before I toppled over the side. I began to lower myself back to the ground, and then I heard Alberta's shout.
"Miss Speakes! What on earth are you doing?"
My arms couldn't take it anymore. I released the wall and fell with a short scream, landing painfully on the compacted soil of the orchard. I stared up at the palm trees and their bushels of yellow fruit and groaned.
"That's exactly what you get. Climbing the walls like some kind of wild monkey, honestly! What would parents have to say?" Alberta approached and gestured impatiently for me to stand. I rose carefully to my feet and dusted off my skirt.
"Hello, Berta. How are you feeling today? Particularly nagging?"
Alberta was a short woman, with a thick waist and robust limbs and a face that looked as though it had been pulled too tightly across her skull. She dressed primly in a white apron and blue skirt, and though her hands were folded politely before her, her eyes glowered at me.
"Respectable English ladies do not climb walls," she said. "And they certainly don't fall off of them."
"Well we're not in England, are we?" I said as I shoved my discarded shoes onto my feet.
"Your mother charged me with the responsibility of your rearing as a lady," she said, and I rolled my eyes. I'd heard this speech before. "And I take my job very seriously. Jut because we live in a mad country doesn't mean we have to behave like its natives."
"I know what my mother did," I said and started away from her, toward the tawny side of Gregory's manor. My mother sent me away to live with a stranger when I was five years old, with only Alberta for company. I had only seen my parents three times since then, and only briefly. My father was the Queen's ambassador to Lahal, my desert home, and they lived across the dunes in the capital city of Bahr Madeenah. In all their letters they had never explained to me why they had done this, and in all their promises of love I had never found it within me to forgive them. That had been fourteen years ago, but now they were summoning me back.
"When you return to your family they will expect to see a young lady," Alberta continued, fluttering behind me like an anxious bird.
"They may be disappointed," I muttered. We were coming around the corner of the manor, and I could hear voices echoing back from the front. "What's going on?" I said. The estate was a quiet place of study, and any commotion that diverted from the peace gave me hope for excitement.
"The soldiers have returned," Alberta said, a short sniff in her voice. She didn't approve. I spun on her and she nearly ran into me. "Miss Speakes!"
"He's back?" I said, my voice breathless. "He's really back?"
"For some time now. If you'd been studying your history in the library like you were supposed to you would have known that."
I was already flying around the corner before she'd finished speaking. I could hear her shuffling along behind me, muttering under her breath, but I couldn't understand her.
I had only one friend at the estate. He'd been there the day I arrived, another ward of the doctor's, who had laughed at me when I'd tumbled out of the carriage screaming. He'd enlisted in Her Majesty's Army as soon as he was able, and since then I'd felt as though he was constantly whisked away from me, but he always came back.
I reached the long dirt drive that led to the front of the manor. It had to be at least a mile long, and it was bustling with people. Servants were loading my things into a cart in preparation for my journey, while soldiers fresh from the ride dismounted looking haggard and exhausted. I weaved between them, nodding at the ones who greeted me, until I saw him. He was dismounting his brown mare, chatting casually with a stable boy as he swept a hand through his thick head of blonde hair.
"Lewis!" I cried. He turned, smiling at the sight of me, and held out his arms, which I promptly jumped into.
He laughed and whirled me about before setting me carefully on my feet again. He was tall and lean, and though his skin had been light and pink when he'd left it was now sun kissed and golden. He beamed down at me. "Hello, Miss Speakes," he said with a wink and a short bow. "How are you? And may I be the first to wish you a happy birthday?"
"Stop it," I said, swatting his shoulder. "Don't be so stuffy and formal. How was it? The training? Was it awful?"
He laughed. "It was brilliant, Mal. Harsh desert, harsher men, I needed it. I've gotten too used to this cushy place," he said, eyeing the manor. "You never have to work for anything here, you know?"
I fingered a new medal on his lapel. It had joined the small collection on his chest, but this one stood out, shiny and new. "Is this all you get for being a captain? It seems awfully small."
"It's not about size," he said, brushing my hand away. "I'm an officer now, I have a voice."
"You had to go away for six months to find your voice?"
"Of course, they had to train me."
"Train you to yell?" I said with a grin and slid my hand into his, surprised to find how rough it was. "Are you coming with me to Bahr Madeenah?"
"More than just coming," he said, straightening. "I'm leading the expedition. My first assignment as captain: deliver the ambassador's daughter to him safely." He smiled down at me. "Nothing's going to happen to you while I'm in charge."
"I don't doubt it," I said.
"Captain Aldridge?" A calm voice came from behind us and Lewis dropped my hand to perform a sharp salute.
"Dr. Gregory," he said with a curt nod. "How are you, sir?"
"Fine, my boy, fine, and what's with this 'sir' nonsense? Has the promotion gone to your head already?" He smiled and glided toward us in his usual robe and slipper ensemble. A retired military man turned scholar, Dr. Gregory looked old for his age. He had wrinkles behind his spectacles from squinting at small text, and dark liver spots on his hands that mingled with the ink splotches from his fountain pen. What was left of his hair was white, as were the bristles on his chin, and the yellow of his teeth shown sharply against the dull parlor of his skin. "How was your journey?"
"As pleasant as possible," Lewis said.
"And you feel you're prepared for what awaits you?"
"Of course, sir," he said and cast me a sidelong glance. "As prepared as anyone can be."
"I still don't see why I need an entire troop coming with me," I said.
"We've discussed this, Mallory," Gregory said with a sigh.
"Three soldiers is hardly a troop, Mal," said Lewis.
"Lewis would be fine on his own."
"I'd feel safer knowing you are well protected."
"There was barely anyone with us the first time," I said, thinking of my first journey across Lahal's deserts. I was only a child, and could barely remember any of it, but I knew that we did not have nearly as much protection as Gregory was insisting upon.
"That was fourteen years ago," Gregory said. He had a hand pressed to his temple. "Times have changed."
I opened my mouth to snap back, but Lewis put a hand on my shoulder.
"She'll be fine, Dr. Gregory," he said. "I'll make certain of it."
The doctor nodded absently. "I need to speak with you, Lewis, privately. Mallory, go find Alberta and try not to vex her. It's almost time for your dinner."
"I want to speak to Lewis," I said, folding my arms across my chest. "He just got back. This is hardly fair."
"We'll have plenty of time to talk later, Mal," Lewis said, and hugged me lightly. "I'll find you."
I released him reluctantly, but did not follow as they wandered into the gloomy shadow of the manor with heads bent closely together.
"Miss Speakes!" Alberta had finally caught up with me, and she was panting like a racehorse. I sighed.
"Time to dress," she said, and seized my elbow, as though terrified I might try and run again. I allowed her to drag me through the crowd and through the manor's bold double doors.
The front hall was cool and calm and I could breathe without risk of sucking dust into my lungs. The floor was veined marble, and it stretched across the hall like a cobweb, as though it would catch unsuspecting feet at any moment. There were doors leading off the hall: parlor rooms and sitting areas no one bothered to use, and one elaborate dining hall that I'd only been in once before. It was now being laid with sparkling crystal and polished silver in preparation for my birthday dinner. Alberta led me up the center stairwell and to my barren room. They had stripped away almost everything I owned—only my bed and vanity remained.
Alberta went to the bathroom, and I soon heard the tap running. I sank onto my bed. There were two dresses laid across it: a dull white traveling suit for tomorrow, and a soft satin gown of deep blue for tonight. It was pretty with the crystal beading along the bodice and the bits of lace that trimmed its sleeves. Mother had brought it with her during one of her visits, but I had never worn it. I'd never had a reason to. I wondered if I'd have plenty of reasons to wear gowns like it in Bahr Madeenah, and I wondered if I would enjoy that.
Alberta came out and ushered me into the bathroom. I took my time, relishing in the heat and the faint lavender scent of the water. I hoped they had baths like this in the city, but before too long Alberta was banging on the door, twittering about how late it was getting, how I was going to be late to my own party. I climbed out of the tub and went to sit before her at the vanity and watched my reflection as she set to work.
She pinned my hair on top of my head, and dusted my freckles away with powder. She tried to make my round face longer with strokes of blush, but even I could see the attempt was useless. She painted my lips with something sticky and tasted of tar, and then she helped me into the blue dress. I was short, and the dress too long, and Alberta clicked her tongue in disapproval, but there was no time to do anything about it. She slid my feet into shoes that made me wobble, but added the necessary height.
"Is it just going to be a bunch of soldiers?" I said gloomily as she slid a silver bracelet onto my wrist.
"And the doctor." She spun me around to face her, and pointed a stubby, warning finger. "Behave yourself."
I adjusted my skirt. "Don't patronize me."
She released an exasperated sigh and ushered me toward the door. "They are waiting for you. Remember, you are a lady."
I left her at the doorway, tramping down the hallway in the most unlady-like fashion that I could muster. I could hear her muttering behind me and I smirked, but as I reached the stairwell, I stood a little straighter.
They were waiting at the base of the stairs—officers in their clean, dress uniforms of navy blue with metals glinting on their chests. They looked up at me as I appeared and raised thin-stemmed glasses full of sparkling liquid. Dr. Gregory stood at their head, wearing a dinner jacket and white tie, and looking oddly out of place without his robe. I smiled hesitantly at them.
"To the birthday girl, on her last evening with us. Many happy returns." Gregory smiled up at me, and the soldiers murmured his words amongst them as they sipped from their glasses. I stood awkwardly until they had all finished. "I believe dinner is served," the doctor added, and they filed into the dining room. Gregory waited at the bottom of the stairs for me, and I took his arm and allowed him to lead me to my seat of honor at the head of the table. He settled himself to my right, Lewis took the seat to my left, and I sat back and prepared for an onslaught of meaningless chatter.
Our footman brought me a glass of champagne, but Lewis snatched it out of my hands before I could take a sip.
"Lewis!" I scowled at him as he drank it all in one gulp. "I was drinking that!"
"Not with these scoundrels around you're not," he said. There was something in his voice, an edge I hadn't heard before.
"Are you all right?"
"You seem a little off. Are you drunk, Captain Aldridge?"
I meant it as a tease, but he glowered at me. "That's ridiculous. I'm fine. Are you having a nice birthday?"
"I'm not sure yet," I said. "I haven't gotten any presents."
They served a dish that was indistinguishable—a Lahalan specialty. Gregory insisted on serving native dishes on special occasions, though I'd pleaded with him to let me choose dessert. Most of the soldiers looked down at their plates with poorly disguised disgust, but Gregory rose for a toast before they had the courage to take a bite. He raised his wine glass and the men quickly followed suit.
"It gives me great pleasure to wish this lovely lady a happy nineteenth birthday," Gregory began. "When she came to me, only a seedling, we had no idea what kind of flower she would blossom into, and now she sits before us a woman, preparing to venture into a new journey. I am very proud," he added, speaking now only to me, "I am very proud to have had a say in what kind of woman you have become, Mallory Speakes."
A cheer echoed through the hall, but as glasses rose to thirsty lips, a commotion at the end of the dining hall stopped them. Heads turned sharply, and I leaned out of my seat to peer at what stood in the open doorway.
It was a Lahalan man with dark skin, swathed in the sweeping fabrics of the desert people. His clothes were torn and dusted with sand that rested far beyond the estate's borders. He was young, but his face was cold and expressionless, his features jagged and sharp as a rock. His thick hair was black and hung over his eyes. His gaze swept over us, and for a breadth of a moment settled on me. His eyes met mine and I almost gasped, but clamped a hand over my mouth to stifle it. I had never seen a desert man with blue eyes.
Lewis started to his feet, but Gregory held out a hand to stop him. "Mr. Fulan," he said. "Thank you for coming. If you'll give me a moment, I will join you in the parlor."
The man inclined his head and stepped back into the hall, the doors closing behind him. As soon as he was gone, the room erupted.
"What is the meaning of this?" Lewis said, pushing back his chair with enough force to send it toppling over. Gregory stood calmly and folded his napkin on his plate.
"Forgive me, Mallory, but I have matters to attend to. I'll be back for dessert." He touched my shoulder and brushed past me, ignoring the outraged cries of soldiers, and disappeared through the dining hall doors. Lewis was quick at his heels.
I watched them go breathlessly. They called them desert men—the ones who lived in the bleak emptiness of the dunes. Lewis had described them as fearsome and cold, hardened by the harsh realities of the sands. The thought of his cold blue eyes, eyes that no Lahalan should have, sent chills down my spine. Where had he come from? And what was he doing here? I remembered the lone rider over the wall, and I almost leapt out of my seat.
I pushed back my chair softly and stood, but no one was paying me the slightest attention. I hugged the wall and passed them quickly, stepping undetected into the deserted entrance hall. It was empty, but I could see light coming from beneath one of the doors. I crept towards it and dropped to my stomach. I could see three pairs of feet on the lush carpet: one seated on the low sofa, the two others standing as far apart from each other as possible. I pressed my ear into the crack beneath the door.
I heard Gregory's voice, thin and stretched like linen that had been washed too many times. "I apologize for the suddenness of my letter," he said. "I wouldn't ask unless under the greatest necessity." There was a moment of silence before he continued. "She is my greatest treasure, my fondest student, and you of all people must have heard the rumors?"
"What rumors?" Lewis' voice interjected. "I've heard nothing. What are you talking about, Gregory?"
"You speak of who I assume?" The stranger's voice was cold and heavy, like a rock at the bottom of a riverbed. "The Bandit King?"
A tangible silence fell over them. I held my breath, waiting, but it seemed hours before someone finally spoke.
"The Bandit King?" Lewis repeated. "Are you serious? Gregory, what could he possibly want with Mallory?"
"She's the ambassador's daughter. I will not take any chances, especially not now that she's promised."
I pressed my ear furiously against the crack. Promised? What does that even mean? Surely not what I thought it did.
I heard Lewis sigh. "She's not going to like that."
"I know." Gregory sounded dryly amused, but there was also sadness beneath his words. "I was going to tell her tonight."
"Oh yes. A husband is Mal's idea of a quality birthday gift."
"What?" The word was out before I could stop it, and I clamped a hand over my mouth. I heard them shuffling towards the door, and it was flung open on me still lying on my stomach. I looked up at the desert man's cool eyes for a brief moment, before Lewis stepped in front of him.
"Mallory? What are you doing on the floor?" He hoisted me up by my shoulders, and I stood with my arms crossed, fuming at him.
"What do you mean 'promised'?" I said, looking over his shoulder at Gregory, who was still seated on the sofa. He removed his spectacle and cleaned them with his handkerchief.
"Your parents have made the arrangement," he said. "I only received the letter last month."
"Last month?" I said. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't want to burden you in your last days with me."
I swallowed a lump in my throat. "No, you didn't want to have to face me. You were going to tell me right before I left so you wouldn't have to feel too guilty because you, sir, are a coward. A lying, selfish coward."
I saw the hurt in the fall of his shoulders, but I turned away without another word. Lewis touched my arm, but I shrugged him off and bounded up the stairs. They were still muttering together when I reached the landing, and the desert man's words were the last I heard before I came to my bedroom.
"I'll assist you," he said, and there was faint amusement in his voice. "It seems you'll need it."
I slammed my door shut and fell back on my bed, staring out my window into the fathomless black sky beyond. I watched the soft twinkling of the stars and the delicate breeze on the date trees and I knew exactly what I had to do.