ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Bengal Bridegift


Chapter 14

          Later that evening, Juno waited patiently on deck for Jost to awaken. He had slept through dinner, and Landon decided they could all go above decks as night fell, since the threat of danger had lessened, after their visit to the court.  Juno gratefully emerged to sit on the fore deck, lifting her face to enjoy the breeze that always materialized as the sun set. Aware that someone approached, she looked up and tried to contain her disappointment when she discovered that it was only Horry, still wrapped in the blanket.  As Aditi had predicted, within a remarkably short space of time the ague had dissipated, and then disappeared altogether.   Juno smiled as he settled beside her. “Aditi turned the trick.”

     “That she did.” He looked out over the harbor with a grin that nearly matched his usual grin. “With the aid of a promiscuous missionary.”

     “She has led an unusual life, I think,” Juno offered diplomatically.

     He met her eye with extreme skepticism, but Juno felt a twinge of compassion. “We should give her the benefit of the doubt, Horry; I think her parents must have died when she was young, and she has had to survive as best she could.”

     “Well, I have the impression she’s thrived, rather than survived, and has no regrets whatsoever.”

     “Be that as it may,” Juno cautioned with some severity, “You shouldn’t be speaking of such things.”

     But Horry was unrepentant.  “It is so obvious, Juno—it would be ridiculous not to speak of it.”

     Reminded that Jost had warned Horry about Aditi, Juno could only be grateful to the Dutchman; her brother showed no signs of infatuation, and instead seemed inclined to mimic Jost’s casual exasperation with the girl.  “Well, she and Jost have quarreled—that much is evident. I‘m afraid she’s not one to temper her actions; it is a shame she doesn’t realize that she only makes things worse.”

     “He is not one to temper his actions, either,” Horry pointed out. “And you are in the middle, Juno—it’s dashed hard on you; he shouldn’t have taken her on.”

      “He felt an obligation,” Juno decided to disclose. “Her brother was a friend of his. And don’t forget that she knew about the neem leaves, Horry.” 

     Horry rubbed his face in his hands. “Oh, Lord—I am required to be grateful, I suppose.”

     “We should all try to be civil,” Juno advised. “We’ve a long journey ahead, like it or not.”

     “I can’t be too civil,” Horry pointed out with a gleam. “I don’t want to give her the wrong idea, if you catch my meaning.”

     “Perish the thought; best be polite, but passive.”

     “Concerned, but not committed,” he countered.

     “Chilly, but courteous,” she parried.

     “Deferential, but disinterested,” he declared, with the air of the winner.

     “Me, I do not know what any of this means,” said Jost, who’d appeared beside them. He carried his boots in his hand, and sat to pull them on. Juno found his bare feet very appealing, and wondered if he was ticklish. If Horry had not been present she might have tested him out—she was positively longing to touch him.

     “We were speaking of Aditi,” Horry explained. “Whatever is to become of her?”

     Jerking on his boot, Jost answered in a grim tone, “Me, I would drown her.”

     “Perhaps she can be taught a trade,” suggested Juno.  “Other than the trade she practices, that is. Can she read, or write?”

     “Juno,” said Jost with heavy patience. “I do not wish to speak of Aditi.”

     “Very well.” She lowered her voice. “We were wondering what should be done with the diamonds, now that we know the Nabob must not have them.”    

     Jost seemed to weigh his words, and kept his gaze fixed on the deck. “The diamonds, they are part of the bridegift.”

     “The diamonds that the priest gave me?” Juno looked to Horry, but saw that he was just as puzzled as she. “How so?”

     “The insurance money, it is exchanged for diamonds, because it is easier to smuggle diamonds,” Jost explained as he pulled on the other boot.  “A fortune can be carried by one man—very simple.”

     “Oh,” said Juno, her brow clearing. “Is that how the Rajah is connected to the scheme?”

     Jost nodded.  “The Rajah of Sattara; he trades the money for the diamonds—they come from the Deccan plateau, under his control.”

     “Then he should be arrested,” Juno declared with some heat.  “He must know that the entire enterprise is treasonous.”

     “He’s not British, Juno,” Horry pointed out.

     “He should be arrested, nevertheless,” she insisted. “Can’t the British at least threaten him?”

     “There is much money at stake, and the Rajah, he is loyal to whoever pays him the money.” Jost shrugged. “It is the way of it.” 

     “Well, it is the wrong way,” Juno declared, her cheeks flushed. “To care only about material gain, with no thought of who will suffer as a result.”

     Horry shot her a meaningful glance, and thus reminded, Juno amended self-consciously, “Present company excepted, of course.”

     Horry laughed aloud at her faux pas, while the Dutchman only smiled, his white teeth flashing in the fading twilight. “Me, I am the honest man, now.”

     “Can you tell us of it? Before you were honest, I mean.” Horry was apparently eager to hear tales of piracy.

     With a meaningful glance toward Juno, Jost said only, “Some other time,” and Horry nodded in male understanding. 

     Juno sighed in exasperation at the both of them, but secretly she could not help but be pleased that Jost was taking Horry under his now-honest wing. Her little brother was not yet a man, but no longer a boy, and he must miss his father acutely.  Reminded, she pulled at the string around her neck and said to Jost, “I think it may be best if you carry the diamonds, after all. I was so afraid, today, that I would lose them.”

     His expression one of mock-surprise, Jost stared at her. “Yes? I am to be trusted, now? What of your very important promise to the priest?”

     “I will no longer honor the obligation, being as he was going to murder me,” she explained dryly. “And do not think I don’t know that you could have taken them any time you wished.”

     “They stay in the pipe—it is a good hiding place.”  Without further comment, he stuffed the clay dragon into his pocket.

     “Do not forget they are in there, and smoke the diamonds at your meeting, tonight,” she teased.

     “What meeting is this?” Horry asked, his expression alert. 

     Coloring up, Juno castigated herself for failing to learn her lesson in discretion. “Nothing,” she finished lamely.

     Jost took pity on her. “I go to discover information—but you must not say.”

     “Capital; may I go?” Horry’s eyes shone.

     To Juno’s surprise, Jost seemed to consider this option, but he then shook his head.  “Tonight, you must rest, to be sure the sickness, it does not come back. But tomorrow night, you will be needed ashore.”

     As Horry grinned in anticipation, Juno asked with some dismay, “Oh—how long do we stay?” She was under the impression they were slated to leave Madras with all speed, and after her experiences on shore today, this plan seemed prudent.     

     “As long as we must,” replied Jost, and Juno could see that a more satisfactory answer would not be forthcoming.  “Now,” he continued, “I will speak to Horry.”

     Juno blinked. “I am to leave?”

     “If you please.” Jost gestured with his head toward the stern.

     Bemused, Juno rose to her feet and curtseyed as though she was taking her leave from a drawing room. “Pray do not conspire against me, you two.”

     Thinking to make her way to the aft deck, she saw that Landon was attempting to teach Aditi the fine art of night fishing off the stern, and so Juno decided not to disturb the lesson—best to give Aditi a wide berth, after this tumultuous day. 

     The other crew members were below deck, cleaning up after dinner, and so she leaned against the gunwale, and breathed in the familiar scent of India.  They were to leave soon, and sail half way across the world to England—an England she didn’t remember. Juno faced the prospect unafraid, and she was honest enough to admit it was because of Jost; she would gladly follow him anywhere, down any rugged road. Unable to suppress her happiness, she lowered her head, watching the water and hugging the knowledge to herself. Amazing, that she hadn’t know him very long, but felt she knew him very well indeed; amazing, that her allegiance could be transferred so easily, and so irrevocably. She felt as though she’d been waiting in suspended animation, until he finally appeared before her that night—like the answer to a prayer. Although no one could accuse him of saintliness, certainly; this being borne out by the nature of the tattoos on his fine chest—tattoos that she would very much like to trace with her fingers.  Soon, she thought; it seemed he could not keep his mind from what he called the bed sport, and truth to tell, she felt the same way.

     She trusted him--although perhaps she was being foolish, given his past. On the other hand, she didn’t care two pins about his past, or the women he had known—and one would imagine there were more than a few. Once committed, he would be loyal--she could sense it; he was loyal to her father, and to the pact he’d made with the other men to care for the bereft—she paused, struck by a sudden thought. He wouldn’t have participated in the pact unless he had family to see to himself, but it seemed evident they were no longer alive—he had hinted as much that first night.   Perhaps if the opportunity arose, she would ask him; he seemed reluctant to speak of his past.

     Horry came to join her, leaning on the rail with his elbows, and watching as the lights begin to appear, one by one, on shore.  “Have you resolved all problems?” she teased.  She had a good guess as to the topic of their conversation, and would have very much liked to eavesdrop.

     “We were just making plans,” Horry replied with his newfound maturity. 

     Juno wrapped her arm around his in a fond gesture, and leaned her head against his shoulder. “We are due for an adventure, it seems. It is only fair; Papa had all the adventures, up to now.”

     “We are going to find out what happened to him,” Horry promised, “and clear his name.”

     “Yes; I was doing some wishful thinking, and hoping he was still alive, but Sir Jost said he buried him at sea.”

     Horry lifted his head, considering this news. “It is fitting—Papa loved the sea.”

     “As do you.” Juno looked up at him. “Landon says you’ll make captain, someday.”

     Horry placed his hand over hers and squeezed. “Be brave, worrywart.”

     Smiling, she shook her head. “I’m not a brave soul, I’m afraid. The family trait has skipped over me.”

     “Slayer of tigers,” he teased, imitating Jost.

     But Juno disagreed, “It’s not brave when you have no choice, Horry—truly.”

     He let it go, and they watched the shoreline a bit longer.  “Sir Jost went to his meeting. I think your theory is right—that he’s some sort of spy for the Crown.”

     Tracing the wooden railing with a finger, Juno nodded. “He seems to have a great deal of influence. And he is careful about what he tells us—did you notice it, when he spoke of the diamonds?”

     Horry nodded. “Yes; he wants us to know only so much, and no more, and he never said what was to happen to them.”

     Juno knit her brow. “No—he didn’t, did he?”

     But Horry had moved on to a more interesting subject. “He’s going to give me one of his knives—he says I’ll have need of a good knife.”

     “Wonderful,” his sister replied in a dry tone, “Pray do not go about with it clenched between your teeth.”

     Horry let out a bark of laughter. “Don’t worry—it is double-edged, and I would only hurt myself.”

     “And no tattoos,” Juno warned.

     “A small one, perhaps,” Horry teased. “Your name.”

     She pretended to consider. “I suppose that would be acceptable.”

     “I imagine,” said Horry with a sidelong glance, “—that mine won’t be the only one.”

     Juno did not deign to respond.