ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

The Bengal Bridegift


Chapter 18

     It was no surprise that Juno dozed, on and off, whilst they waited for the cover of night; it was warm on the palace roof, and she was exhausted, mentally and physically.  After they heard the searchers return, dispirited and empty-handed, Jost indicated they would leave, and unrolled his rope yet again.

     Now that Juno had the hang of it, it was a simple matter to descend from the roof—or at least simple compared to their ascent.  As they made their quiet way through the ornate garden and out to the road, it seemed to Juno that security was rather lax, considering the undeniable breach earlier in the evening.  In response to her observation, Jost explained that the guards had other matters on their minds. “They will be thinking of the transfer of power; much is at stake.”

     “Didn’t the Rajah have an heir?”  As she had no shoes, once again Juno was hoisted onto his back for the long walk back to the dockyard.

     “The heir, he is a child. Such a situation, it is trouble—especially here.”

     As they trudged along, Juno entertained a spiteful desire that Najeera would be handed over to marry some man she didn’t much like.  She then observed, “Napoleon will be unhappy, if there is no Rajah to send him diamonds.” She laid her cheek against his shoulder, watching their progress along the tree line, where he kept to the shadows.

     The Dutchman cocked his head in agreement.  “Napoleon, he will not sleep well. There is no war without the money.”

     As they wound their way back to the ship, they had to hide amongst the trees only once, when a messenger came flying by on a lathered horse. Other than that, the journey was quiet— save for the night insects making their rasping noises in the undergrowth—and Juno experienced a profound sense of well-being.  She squeezed her arms around Jost’s neck. “I am well and truly ruined.”

     This comment inspired her mode of transport to swing her down, and kiss her very thoroughly for a few minutes.  “Me,” he claimed as he mounted her on his back once more, “I will not let you out of my sight again.”

     “I have no objection to such a plan.” She pulled his braid to the side to kiss the nape of his neck.

     When they finally came to the palisade that surrounded the dockyard, Jost stood in the shadows for a few minutes, listening, then lowered Juno to the ground. Putting his fingers to his mouth, he blew two short whistles.

     Whilst they waited for whatever response Jost expected, Juno asked in a low voice, “Do we set sail with all speed? They must know it was you who killed the Rajah.”

     Watching the entrance gate, Jost shook his head. “No, we do not run—no one will come after me.  The wrong, it was done to me, and so it is understood that I—” he struggled with the translation.

     “Avenged the wrong—made it right?” Juno suggested.

     “Assuredly. I am the strong horse, now, and not to be crossed. It is the way of the men who fight.”

     Juno nodded, thinking it unlikely that anyone who saw the mangled heap of flesh that had been the Rajah would want to invite Jost’s displeasure; small wonder the judge had been uneasy when the Dutchman’s sword was unsheathed.  Juno suppressed another spiteful wish that the judge would hear of what had happened, and sleep with one eye open for a while. Heavens, she thought; I am a vengeful creature all of a sudden—or perhaps I was always vengeful, but never had so many opportunities for it.

     The gate opened, and she sighted a man approaching, plodding along with his hands in his coat pockets, as though heading toward the saloons in the high street. Jost whistled twice again, more softly, and the man changed course slightly without breaking stride, to head straight toward them.

     Taking her arm, Jost positioned Juno so that she stood behind him, and called out, “Here.”

     Seeing his location, the other man approached and tugged on his cap. He was sandy haired and stolid-looking, of moderate size and unremarkable, except for a scar that graced his temple. “Cap’n,” he said in greeting.

     “She will need your coat.” Jost indicated Juno.

     “Miss.” The man nodded respectfully, and doffed his frieze coat without a qualm, handing it to Jost.

     Juno slipped her arms into the sleeves with gratitude; she had been trying not to think about making a reappearance in her blood-spattered, diaphanous clothing.

     “Report,” directed Jost.

     The sandy-haired man obliged. “No sign of trouble, sir. The ship should be fitted by late tomorrow; the crew has been vetted—Mr. Landon felt a few soldiers would be needful.”

     Jost nodded. “You will escort us to the ship.”

     “Yes, sir.” The man unsheathed a pistol, and turned to lead them toward the gate. As had happened on the last occasion, Jost had Juno walk behind him, holding on to his coat as she tried to avoid stepping on any debris with her bare feet.  The guard at the gate could not resist giving her a sidelong glance as they passed through, and Juno could hardly blame him; she must be a strange sight, with her tangled hair unbound, and wearing a man’s coat.

     Once through the gate, it seemed to her that Jost was less vigilant, as they approached the dock where the Minerva was berthed.  Their escort said over his shoulder, “Do not be alarmed if you hear gunfire—Mr. Landon and the boy are shooting.”

     Juno stared at him, bemused. “Shooting? At this time of night?”

     The man replied in a neutral tone, “They’ve been shooting at targets since noon.”

     Poor Horry, thought Juno, her heart aching for him. She hastened her step.

     They could hear the target practice well before they made the Minerva, and Jost gave his distinctive whistle as soon as they were within earshot.  Within seconds, Juno could see Landon and Horry appear at the rail, their faces showing pale in the lantern light. Smiling, she raised an arm over her head and waved as she walked. “Horry,” she shouted. “I am returned, safe and sound.”   

     Her brother met her halfway down the gangplank and enveloped her in a bear hug, lifting her off her feet. “Juno,” he said into her temple, his voice breaking. “Oh, Juno—I am so sorry.”

     She placed her hands on each side of his head, and shook it slightly. “Take hold of yourself, Horry--there was no harm done. Sir Jost rescued me nearly upon my arrival.” She turned to board the ship, carefully wrapping the coat even closer around her disheveled clothes. “Where is Aditi?”

     Horry looked over at Jost, stricken. “Thank you, sir—I promise I will never let you down again.”

     “No one has let anyone down,” Juno insisted. “How could any of us have known, for heaven’s sake? Is Aditi still awake?”

     Landon stood at the railing, and nodded as she came aboard. “Miss.  Glad you’re back.”

     “Thank you.” She paused, as she realized she wasn’t certain where to go, on the newly outfitted ship.

     “This way,” Landon offered, and indicated the companionway as he escorted her down the steps, Jost and Horry following. “You are with Aditi again, only in an officer’s cabin, this time.”

     “No,” replied Juno grimly. “I am not with Aditi again.”

     Hearing her tone, Landon slanted her a speculative glance, but any further questions were forestalled when Aditi herself emerged from the cabin in the narrow passageway, sleepy but undoubtedly eager to greet Jost’s return.

     Juno advanced on her in two strides, and slapped her face, as hard as she was able.  The Indian girl cried out, backing away with her hands to her face.

     “I say, Juno,” Horry protested in surprise, but Juno had decided, many hours ago, that she was going to do violence to Aditi.  She had never done violence to anyone before, but this was a day of many firsts.

     Determined not to revert to hysteria again, Juno said in an even tone, “She watched them take me. She watched them and didn’t help, and didn’t sound the alarm.”

     Before the incredulous stares of the others, Aditi shrank back against the bulwark. “Put her in the brig,” ordered Jost in a curt voice. “Me, I will decide what is to be done.” 

     “This way, missy.” Landon took Aditi’s arm in a firm grip as she began to weep and plead with Jost in her own language. Jost made an abrupt gesture to Landon, and the man tightened his grip and wrestled her down the passageway, the girl trying to drag her feet and calling to Jost in alarm.

     “Infamous,” breathed an outraged Horry. “And to think she pretended to be concerned about you—she acted very upset.”

     “Nothing more than crocodile tears.” Juno saw Jost cock his head at her, and so she explained, “It means she pretended to be sorry but was not, like the crocodile, who cries when it eats.”

     “Yes,” he nodded. “Like your nabob.”

     “He is not my nabob,” Juno corrected him with some heat.

     “And my physician,” added Horry. “Another villain, pretending to be an ally.”

     “Me, I prefer the honest enemy.” Jost rubbed a hand over his eyes. “Not the crocodiles.”

     “You must be exhausted,” Juno touched his arm. “Shall we retire for the night, and discuss our many false friends in the morning?”

     “I have performed the many tasks today,” Jost agreed in a mild tone, and Juno hoped Horry didn’t notice the color rising in her cheeks.

     She turned to her brother, “As part of your penance, you may fetch me as much hot water as you can lay hands on—I desperately need a bath, and I hope there’s a fire going, somewhere.”

     “If there isn’t, I’ll start one—back in a trice.” Horry threw her a look indicating he was aware that he was being sent away, and departed.

     Alone in the narrow passageway, Juno looked up at Jost, and smoothed the end of his braid—she had earned the right, certainly. “I haven’t thanked you, but I don’t know how anything I could say would be enough.”

     He took her hand in his, and pressed it flat against his chest. “I save you, and I save myself. It is the same thing.”

     It was so simple, and yet so true. She nodded in agreement, and asked a bit shyly, “Are you too tired to come wish me goodnight, once I am in my paltry nightdress?”

     He ducked his chin and regarded her. “On a ship, nothing is private, lieve.”

     “All right,” she conceded. “I shall behave, then—-and you are asleep on your feet, anyway.”

     He lifted her hand and kissed it.  “Me, I will be decorous—but only like the crocodile.”

     Laughing, she allowed him to push her through her cabin door.