Disclaimer: I don't own it

Disclaimer: I don't own it.

Chapter 6 The Journey Begins

"She's going to be that wretched woman's servant, Fuad. She'll be treated no better than a slave in that man's house, and it's my fault for not indulging her young fantasies," Ardeth said in a defeated tone as he finally explained to Fuad what had happened. His brother sat in shocked silence hearing that his niece had run away and now faced a life of servitude perhaps not worse if her master had a taste for the local women. "I would've told you as soon as I arrived, but it never seemed to be a good time. I didn't wish to tell you while I was angry because I feared I would have taken it out on you," Ardeth sighed as he still sat before the tray of lush fruits on the balcony.

Fuad had no trouble indulging in several of the dates and berries which he didn't often get the chance to have. He was slightly frustrated with his brother for not telling him immediately about Layla's disappearance, but he knew how it must be tearing Ardeth apart. As much as Fuad loved his niece, he knew that Ardeth saw her almost as his own child. He had been the one to tell her bedtime stories and spoil her since her father died. He also knew that Ardeth blamed himself for her father's death. "Has Mercedes agreed to help you?" he asked after moments of silence as he savored a date.

"She simply said that we'll ride out tomorrow to meet the caravan," Ardeth said as he slowly rose when he heard someone enter his room. He saw the stout servant carrying a smaller tray toward the bedside table, so he assumed it was to help him sleep. Though he wanted to stay awake and work out how they were to save his niece, Ardeth knew that Mercedes was correct. If his body was weak enough that simply hearing his fears confirmed could cause him to pass out, then a hard ride in the desert would probably kill him. He said his thanks to the maid as she turned and left, and found a seat on the plush bedding.

"I'm coming with you," Fuad said from the archway to the balcony. Ardeth nearly spit out the sleep remedy at his brother's announcement, but managed to hold his composure.

"No, you will stay here where I don't have to fear for your safety on top of Layla's," Ardeth said sternly as he continued to sip the sweet concoction. He could feel it working on his frazzled nerves already, and it was a most welcome feeling. Usually, Ardeth would never accept such a potion from anyone but his mother's skilled hands, but he knew that poison was not Mercedes' style. She was a woman who wanted to see the look on your face as she plunged the dagger into your heart, not the kind that wanted one to expire in their sleep.

"She's my niece too, Ardeth, and I won't sit back while she's in danger," Fuad said commandingly. "If you don't take me with you, I'll contract my own expedition and follow you," he threatened as he approached the bed.

"Brother, this could become dangerous, and I do not wish to risk anymore lives than I must," Ardeth explained with pleading in his eyes. He ran his fingers through his long hair in frustration before letting out a long sigh.

"Yes, but you may also need to be diplomatic, and I'm far better at diplomacy that you my brother. I promise I'll stay far away from any fighting, but I must go with you. I won't be able to rest until I know that both you and Layla are safe," he said as he watched his brother's expression hoping to see resignation. He was not disappointed.

Ardeth bowed his head and he pulled his weary legs up onto the bed and under the covers. He lay back against the pillows and let out another sigh before speaking. "You know I cannot deny you," Ardeth said in only a whisper. "But I pray to Allah that my weakness doesn't cause your death," he said as he rolled onto his side with his back to Fuad. Fuad knew that he was being dismissed, but he also realized that his brother should not be left alone. So, Fuad quietly rose and took a seat on a plush settee in the corner of the room. He would watch over his brother as Ardeth had done for him since birth.

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Ardeth woke with a start as the remnants of painful memories retreated back into his subconscious. He opened his eyes to see that dawn was not that far off. His brother had joined him on the expansive bed but had chosen to lie sideways below his feet instead of by his side. Ardeth did not understand his younger sibling's sleeping habits.

Ardeth caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and turned to see a woman standing in the doorway. The shadows of night still clung to her, and he couldn't tell if she was a servant or ghost. Her silhouette suggested that she wore heavy layers of skirts. A shawl made the rest her blend into the darkness, but Ardeth couldn't help but find this image fascinating.

He closed his eyes for just a brief moment, but it was long enough for the image to disappear. He told himself to go back to sleep, but just as he was turning over onto his side a light danced before his eyes.

"Dawn's approaching, we must be going," he heard Mercedes' voice say as she held a candle before her. Ardeth opened his eyes only to realize that she had been the silhouette. Gone was her silken dress and exotic shoes. In their place were garments befitting a peasant or perhaps a gypsy? He couldn't stop himself from letting his eyes wander over her new appearance.

The heavy skirts were dulled with age but had once been a vibrant patchwork of colored fabrics. Reds and yellows, greens and oranges all sewn to together into a full skirt. On top a thick maroon shawl crossed over her chest not unlike his own bandoliers. The material stood out like blood against the dusty beige of her tunic. Even her shocking red hair was mostly hidden from sight by a long cloth matching her shawl.

She looked so common that Ardeth had trouble remembering how she looked the night before. "Please, Chieftain Bay. If you wish for my help you must rise now, or we won't make it out of the city before dawn," she said as she dropped a pile of garments upon the bed beside him. "You'll find all that you need there. Wake your brother. I'll meet you in the stable," she said calmly as though she wasn't dressed as a common beggar. With a final nod of her head she was gone again leaving only the faint smell of lilies in her wake.

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Mercedes sat atop her sleek Arabian stallion swaying with the majestic animal's gait. Her skirts were full enough that they allowed her to ride comfortably, although they were not long enough for her to ride any way but side saddle. She had chosen her old garments because no one would recognize her as the gypsy she once was. No one would question her escape from the city with a group of Medjai.

It seemed to her that the past was hell bent on finding its way back into her life, and she would either accept it or be ruined by it. She barely noticed the hot sun beating down upon her cloaked form because she felt the past enveloping her once again.

"Mama, why do I have to go to Egypt?" a sixteen year old Mercedes asked as she shook the dust out of the folds of her full skirt. Her bare feet were filthy from dancing on the pebbled streets, but Mercedes did not seem to notice as she looked pleadingly at her mother.

"You must go because here you'll become a whore. You make money now dancing, but when you can't dance anymore, you will turn to selling yourself. At least if you go to live with your uncle, you have the chance of finding a decent suitor. Your uncle is a wealthy man in Egypt, and he'll see to it that you have a proper life," her mother said sternly as she saw that the top of her daughters bodice had been undone due to the heat. "Already you parade around like a harlot. It will not be long before you do more than parade," she scolded as she snatched the material and closed the last few bindings successfully hiding her daughter's cleavage. Mercedes said nothing as her mother gave her a stern look and left the hut.

Mercedes rushed out of the hut her mother conducted business from and ran for the opera house. She knew that there was no show this night, but she hoped that someone would be there to practice. She slunk in the stage door and listened as a soprano sang "O Mio bambino Caro." Mercedes let herself be immersed in the glorious sound as she felt her burdens overwhelm her.

The next day she found herself being packed away in a caravan of travelers headed for the Mediterranean where she would get passage to Egypt. Gone were her days of dancing in the streets singing flamenco and her nights outside the opera house. No, she was being sent away from her homeland to a world she didn't know.

"Mrs. Al-Hafeez?" Ardeth asked from beside Mercedes. She had been thousands of miles away for most of the day, and he decided that it would be best to have her focus on the task at hand.

"Yes?" she inquired as she slipped back to the present.

"You were so far away. We were worried about you," Fuad explained from her other side before Ardeth could say anything to anger her.

"Just remembering the past. You'll find that the past has a way of finding its way back to you when you become a widow, Fuad. But I hope that you never experience that," she said calmly to him as she reached over and patted his free hand.

Ardeth watched the exchange curiously, but chose to say nothing about it. They had been civil all morning; there was no reason for him to challenge that peace now. "We will stop for several hours at an oasis about an hour from here. We'll sup and rest there before continuing on at midnight," he said before riding up to join one of his men.

"Is he always this pleasant on journeys?" Mercedes asked with an arched brow. She understood that Ardeth was anxious to get his niece back, but she refused to be treated as a peasant even if her clothes made her look like one.

Fuad laughed as he said, "I've never journeyed with him, so I'm the one to ask. However, knowing my brother, this is probably close to his ordinary countenance while traveling." They shared knowing smiles as they glanced at Ardeth who rode ahead of them.

"I suppose that he's stern in everything he does," Mercedes said indifferently as she stroked her mount's sleek neck watching Ardeth. He was a man that belonged in the desert. In Cairo, he had looked stiff and uncomfortable in the western clothes that he had borrowed. Out here, he looked calm and comfortable in those same styles. Perhaps it was the sway of the horse beneath him or the heat of the sun upon him, but Ardeth was at home among the dunes of the Sahara, even when the weight of the world rested upon his broad shoulders.

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"O Mio Bambino Caro" is an aria from the opera Gianni Schicchi by Puccini

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Sorry that it took a month for me to update, but the last month of school was hectic. However, now I should have more time to work on this and the sequel to The Governess. Thank you to those who reviewed my last chapter, your insights are always helpful. Next chapter will give more insight into Mercedes' past, and Ardeth's niece. Please continue to let me know what you think if this.