bearded man. Other shapes, black on black, in the darkness behind him revealed an unspecified number of companions.
I made to leap up, but my companion motioned me to remain seated. A sudden tension in her revealed, nevertheless, that my first instinct was correct. This was no chance-encountered set of caravan drivers. The weapons at their belts, as they gradually stole into the light, and resolute expressions on their faces, showed little patience with the niceties of desert etiquette.
Like a gracious hostess at home, or here, like the master of a great tribe, she motioned to them to sit down nevertheless. Three of them did so, while the others hung back – “to watch the horses,” said the bearded man, clearly their leader. One could not but suspect that their task was rather to make an inventory of the horses, and other goods also.
My rifle was still carefully stowed in my saddlebag, whence I removed it each evening before I went to bed, to lay under my pillow. So many futile precautions against the eventuality which had now befallen us. We were caught as neatly as two partridges in a trap, and were hardly likely to extricate ourselves without (at least) the loss of all our property.
I feared, too, for my companion’s secret when it came time to search us for hidden valuables. Best to keep them talking, I knew – she knew. We communicated as much in a single glance.
“So, brothers, what brings you to these barren regions, so dangerous for travellers from the city?” said the bearded man, apparently keen to keep up the appearance of civility for a time at least.
“I am here to look for old books and papers in the ruins to the north.” I said, hoping to steer him off the subject of loot right away.
“For treasure, you mean?”
Fat chance. “A kind of treasure. For old things which are valuable in my country, but only if they are perfectly preserved and treated with care.”
“And have you found any yet?” he asked insinuatingly.
“None. The places where I will be looking lie far to the north, in Turkestan.”
“And your guide?”
“Is a native of the mountains, and therefore well qualified to guide me there.”
“Is this true?” he turned his attention to my blue-robed princess of the sands, her slight body tensed like that of a panther, eager to spring, and yet unable to take action. All three of the men sitting across from us had their