In a shadowy game where defeat can mean death, a deal with the enemy can change things forever.
In 1842, Captain Gabriel O’Riordan of the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars is sent on a mission to Bukhara. His task—to try to free two of his compatriots from the clutches of a mentally unstable Emir. On his way, he encounters Valentin Yakolev, an officer in the Russian Army, who is also on a mission—to persuade the Emir that an alliance with Russia would be in his best interests. Gabriel, disguised as a holy man, is not happy to be the object of Yakolev’s intense scrutiny. After all, he’s working for the opposing team in the Great Game being played between their two nations. When Gabriel realises that his mission is little more than a forlorn hope, a game he has no chance of winning, he’s desperate enough to turn to Valentin to help and offer him anything in return. What he doesn’t expect is to have his plans to return to Calcutta scuppered by events.
Instead, he and Valentin flee north, fighting off bandits, their desire for each other and the hardship of desert travel. Their travails bring them closer together until a secret from Valentin’s past tears them apart.
Can they set the past behind them and move on together?
I had more important things to worry about than whether the man who trailed several miles behind me was a coincidental traveller or someone with a far more sinister purpose. My horse was hopping lame and I needed to find somewhere to rest. The prospect of dealing with potential trouble in a country ripe with dangerous possibilities did not appeal to me. I patted the animal’s warm neck and kept walking, trying my best to ignore the dust and discomfort of the desert.
A hopeful patch of green glimmered in the distance, distorted by the heat. It was promise enough. I urged the horse on. I cleared my mind of everything but becoming the travelling scholar once more. A harmless fool immersed in research for the sake of it, not a paid fool sent to rescue two other idiots. The May heat left me bad tempered. I just wanted to find a place to rest for a day or two, perhaps lie in wait for my unwanted travelling companion. I knew there was a caravanserai on the road ahead but I didn’t want the crowds, the braying camels, persistent hawkers. I just wanted peace and quiet.
I talked to myself in Uzbek. I talked to the horse. His ears twitched at the sound of my voice and he let loose a long, flubbering sigh as he hobbled along beside me. The oasis drew closer, rising out of the scorched earth in a cluster of trees and earthen buildings. The horse quickened his step and I hurried alongside him, desperate for cool, green shade and a place to rest, even if it was just a rug laid out beneath a tree. I needed all the rest I could get in preparation for the impossible task ahead.
* * * *
The furnace wind kicked up dust and dead leaves, hurling them across the road. I was glad to leave the desert behind and reach the refuge of the village. I searched for the closest thing they had to an inn—a small, mud-walled building beneath a canopy of trees. The proprietor, a wizened old man with skin like creased, oiled leather hobbled out into the courtyard and offered me a toothless smile. There were a few cots scattered beneath a wood-shingled awning. One or two were already occupied by weary, dusty travellers sleeping in the shade. I chose the bed at the far end, desiring as much peace and quiet as possible, not wanting to be bothered by conversation or company.
The horse came first. I led him to a stable.
“Your horse has a bad limp, sir.”
I bent down and examined the injured leg. “I think it’s his foot.”
The horse shuddered when I reached for his hoof. It was hot to the touch and a close study of the sole revealed a tell-tale black line, which told me that he had an abscess. “Can I have some warm water?”
“Yes, sir.” The innkeeper smiled, nodded then walked away.
I searched my saddle pack for the small bags of things I kept for medicinal purposes including Epsom salts, then pulled the knife from my belt. The innkeeper returned with a basin of water and stood watching when I dug my knife into the animal’s hoof. The horse groaned and snorted but remained still as pus streamed from his foot. I dropped Epsom salts into the water, then dunked an unrolled bandage into it. Once the cloth was soaked, I wrapped it carefully around the horse’s hoof, all under the watchful eye of my host.
“You are a clever man, sir.” His grin was brilliant in the seamed leather of his face.
I straightened my back and patted the horse’s warm neck. “No, just one who has learnt to care for his horse.” I didn’t much care for such close scrutiny and hoped the innkeeper wasn’t one of those talkative sorts who need to know the life story of each of his guests.
He stooped to retrieve the basin and flung the water onto the dirt. “I will leave you to rest. I will bring you some food later.”
“Thank you.” I salaamed, made sure the horse was settled then sought refuge on my bed.
It was cool enough in the shade to be comfortable. I lay down on my bedroll and fell asleep to the warbling of a bird in the dusty trees.
* * * *
The sun slipped beyond the walls of the inn. My host carried a tray across the yard and set it on a small table beside my bed. “It is but a simple meal, sir.”
I glanced at the bowl of aromatic stew, the cup of cloudy white rice, the pickles and slab of flatbread. “It is a feast after days of traveller’s fare. Thank you.”
He left me to eat in peace, which I did, until the bowl was empty, wiped clean by the last wedge of warm bread. I washed the repast down with the lukewarm tea he’d provided. It was more than enough to satisfy me. I returned the tray to the house then went to see to my horse.
The gelding dozed, resting his afflicted foot. I removed the bandage and poultice, pleased to note that the wound had finished draining. There was still some heat in the sole, which meant I faced a day or two of enforced rest.
“It’s all right, my friend,” I murmured into his ear. “A day or two isn’t going to make much of a difference.
I wasn’t sure I believed my own words but I needed a sound horse more than I needed the firearm hidden in my saddlebag. The gelding nudged me, then rubbed his head against my shoulder, seeking relief from some hidden itch. I obliged by scratching his cheek and offering up prayers to every god I could think of to speed his recovery.