I'm not entirely sure if the nested narrative worked as well as I'd hoped, but Andy was patient while I worked it out. And as usual, he was the perfect partner, keeping me on task and focused on what really mattered. Thanks, Andy!--Maer
"We can't do it! We can't perform the coup!"
Rina's words were still hanging in the air as she rushed out of the room where the crew of the Equinox was meeting and Joshua didn't need to be openly trying to Read Rina to feel the sharp spike of emotion. Some pain, yes, but mixed with more complex emotions. Sympathy? Concern? His abilities were never as precise as the crew thought or as exact as they wanted. Regardless, his place was no longer here, but at his new wife's side.
Speaking a quick agreement with her decision to stand down their action against the sheikh, Joshua put a hand on Nika's shoulder and motioned with his head towards the door where Rina had run off through. Nika nodded in understanding and Joshua quickly followed after Rina, catching up with her in their suite in the massive desert compound.
He looked at her carefully, noticing the buttons undone that Arden had mentioned so tactlessly. What had the sheikh asked her to do? "How are you doing, love? You've got me all worried."
Wednesday 14 Jul 2523
Al Tabr's Compound
"Rina?" Nika asked me. "Are you okay?"
God, no. I could still hear Al Tabr's sobbing in my head. I had to get out of there or lose it. I left the crew on the pretext of needing to bathe and hit the door to the suite given to me and Joshua. It was tastefully done, less ornate given the culture but as ornate as possible given the location and the means. The attached bath was marble and gold and glazed tile and the rush of water echoed harshly off the walls as I got the shower going. My fingers fumbled on the buttons Arden had mentioned and for a brief instant I considered just ripping the damned things off. I took a shaky breath and got a grip and let go my shirt before I tore it. It was a new one, in a red Joshua liked seeing on me, and I wasn't so rich I could ruin it with abandon.
I braced a hand to either side of the shower door and stared at my reflection in the glass. Small woman, dark eyes wide in a pale face, thoroughly stricken by what she'd seen and learned of a man she'd been ready to kill with her bare hands less than an hour before. I closed my eyes and saw again his tears as he told me what happened to his mother, saw again the hideous scars his father had seared into his flesh. Bile rose hot and stinging in my throat as my upset clawed its way out and I barely made it to the head in time. Joshua's query was nothing but a buzz in my ears as I retched up everything I dared not express.
Joshua heard the water running and followed the sound into the bath. He entered just in time to witness Rina heaving into the toilet. While she was in the head, Joshua reached over to the shower and flipped the water to the faucet to pour Rina a bath. Both would get a person clean, but Rina needed the calming influence of a warm bath now, even if she didn't realize it herself. Then he went into the head and held Rina's hair back while she finished hurling. "Rough day," he said comfortingly.
I was shaking and I gripped to porcelain to make it stop. I hawked and spat and managed to drag up a reply.
"You have no idea."
"You can tell me after you get into your bath." He rubbed her back firmly with his free hand and once it seemed Rina didn't have anything left to vomit up, gently took hold of her arm and helped her stand up. "Let's get you out of these clothes, if that's okay."
For the second time that night I was asked to undress on request … and déjà vu hammered me hard. I scraped together what objectivity I could and managed to get my shirt unbuttoned before I had to stop. I sat down on the edge of the tub and trailed my fingers through the water.
"He asked me to … disrobe for him," I said to the ripples without seeing them. Instead I saw the lamplit study and Al Tabr's eyes on me.
Joshua nodded. Judging by her current reaction, her request to kill the coup, and the simple fact that the sheikh was still alive, she had disrobed for him. That didn't bother him, but how she was feeling now did. Helping her feel better was the first step before finding out anything about what happened.
"Do you want me to help take your pants off? Or perhaps leave you alone to disrobe and take your bath in private?" His voice made it clear that he wouldn't be bothered by that...that he understood.
I didn't want to be touched but I didn't want to be alone. There was only one response I could give him.
"Help, please, but only if you get in here with me."
Joshua nodded again, and stripped himself of his shirt, shoes, and pants quickly. One of the benefits of having been a Borrower, he thought. A lot of experience changing clothes. After he had removed his clothes, he helped Rina out of her pants, before stepping into the tub himself. The water was near hot, but not quite. In other words, perfect bath temperature. From inside the tub, he reached out a hand. "Need a hand in?"
A month after his fight with Mike, bruises still stood out lividly against Joshua's skin. The tan he'd picked up on our honeymoon effaced them somewhat but I knew exactly where each and every one of them were. Some things once seen, like Al Tabr's scars, were impossible to forget.
I took Joshua's hand and slipped into the tub with him.
"So, he asked you to disrobe?" Joshua looked at her with some concern tinged with a small amount of curiosity. "Did he ask for anything else? What has you upset, Rina?"
Joshua leaned back against the tub and I leaned back with him. The water was warm and soothing, as was his skin against mine, and I put my arm around him, getting as close to him as possible.
"He said ... No. You have to understand the context in which he said it." I closed my eyes and pulled it up from memory. It wasn't hard. It was still fresh and raw and I doubted it would lose its edge anytime soon.
"You are an interesting woman. I sense you've had a hard life. I know that you are married and there are things that only your husband knows about you, but I am a man of considerable power and wealth and in a position to offer your people a thing of great value. So I'd like to ask you something. Ask you to do something for me." He paused as the words floated in the room. The lamplight glittered on his rings, his headdress, his eyes which were steady on mine. "I want to see you."
"To ... see me?" I hedged, my insides crawling as I got the gist. However, I wanted to be absolutely clear as to his intent.
"To view you." He paused again and continued delicately. "Would you disrobe for me?"
I snapped back to the present.
"Please understand, he was very respectful but it was and it wasn't what I was expecting. Especially what happened next."
How far was Rina willing to go for a mission? Joshua honestly wasn't sure. He thought he knew where she might draw the line, but that wasn't the same as being sure. But what he was sure about was Rina's judgment about her own limits.
"Go on," he encouraged. "Don't leave me in suspense....what happened next?"
I threw an arm over the side of the tub and I propped my head on my fist as I smoothed my hand across his chest, needing that contact to continue.
"I won't touch you," he said softly.
I could feel surprise taking hold of my jaw and I deliberately clenched it shut and got a grip.
"I must say I am not very good at negotiating," I began, staving off what was coming with words. Hard to get, I believe my crew described it. "But I also know that when you do negotiate anything, you do not lay all your cards on the table at once." I paused, feeling I might have just struck the match on my only bridge out of this mess. "So ... If I should do this, what can I ... take back to my people?"
"I don't know."
He didn't make a move for me and I was quite frankly confused. If he had rape in mind, he had an odd way of going about it. I raised my brows and shrugged, wondering if what I said would goad him to action.
"Well, then I don't know if I can do it. I cannot go back with an 'I don't know.'"
"If you do it, I will … not respond to the offer by Blue Sun on this visit."
"Of course, he would hedge. It was too early in negotiations to have him cave," I said to Joshua, glancing at him to see if he followed. "Just as it was too early for me to acquiesce and strip. So I asked him what he'd do on subsequent visits and he was honest with me: he said he didn't know. And I thought if he was willing to be honest about money, then perhaps he would be honest about something more … personal. So I asked him …"
"So, just out of curiosity, why would you find me interesting?" I might not care for the attentions of men but I am not completely oblivious when it is paid to me. I had noticed him stealing glances at me during our dinners here.
"You have seen much hardship."
"That is the second time you have said that. I …," Something clicked in my head then and I didn't overthink it. "Do you … have a thing for scars?"
"Of sorts, yes. I do."
"I have one here." I dared pull the neck of my shirt aside far enough to let him see the scar on my collarbone. A safe enough peek. I watched his face carefully, alert for anything sordid or alarming in his interest. Nothing of the sort presented itself. Either he was a very good actor or his interest was something other than puerile. Again, the man did not sink to my expectations and I wanted to know why. I threw him a bit of tasty bait and waited to see if he'd bite. "But there are scars that don't show."
"That is what I wish to see."
"At that point, Joshua, I was halfway sure I would have to hurt him. And I knew that once I did, our mission was screwed. No matter what, we're here to get him on our side, to make him think favorably on us ... and I stood there and wondered just how far I would have to go to make it happen."
And so Joshua asked the question that he had only voiced in his head before. "How far would you have gone?" There was no judgment in his voice, just curiosity. And pride, he thought. Rina had been bumping up against her fears in this and so far, she seemed to have survived the confrontation.
I closed my eyes and thought about what I could say. I didn't want to trivialize what happened but neither did I want to make it a bigger thing than it was.
"How far would I have gone? Until that moment, I didn't know. Which is why I said I was only halfway sure I had to hurt him." I opened my eyes and met Joshua's gaze, glad to see nothing but curiosity and encouragement in them. "The longer I talked to him, the farther the line in the sand got, the more I felt I could do … and the more I felt I had to probe, so as to map where his line in the sand began."
"Hmm. Do … the other women in your household have scars?" It was as close as I could come to accusing him of abuse and it was another test of his boundaries. If he took insult, he didn't show it. He remained calm and answered me.
"Most of them do."
"How did they come by theirs?" Again I had to push. It probably wasn't the best or most professional negotiation he'd ever undergone, but I never claimed to be a professional negotiator.
"Ah, we men …," he said and paused. "Are sometimes an abusive group."
"Mm, yes." I knew from bitter experience just how abusive they could be.
"It is women who keep us from our animal natures … but also suffer for them."
"Could I …?" Was that regret coloring his tone? If so, I had to go carefully. "I don't wish to be rude but I am curious…"
"I have been quite rude to you so you may speak."
"If a woman is, as you say, a civilizing influence on a man, why would one man need so many women?"
"Ah," was his answer, no louder than a sigh. Why?
"Should I fear you?" I asked, already pulling up the room's exits from memory.
"I am not sure."
"I have tremendous power. That is one reason to fear me." A pause. "I could force you to do as I wish, but I do not wish to do it."
"Why not?" I nodded back the way I came. "One might get the wrong idea. You have all these women. Yes?"
"Perhaps one has the wrong idea, yes."
"Perhaps I did," I said, pushing off the tub and reaching for the soap. "There was only one way to find out and that was to honor his request and disrobe. I was fairly certain I could handle myself if it came down to a fight. Apparently he had the same idea."
"So you disrobed for him. Were you scared?" Joshua paused for a moment, thinking his question through in his head. "And I don't mean of him," he clarified.
"Was I?" I picked up a washcloth and applied the soap, buying time to think. At the time I'd already sized him up and reckoned if he and I were to go at it, I would have a good chance of winning despite the advantage he had over me in size. However, it wasn't just about me.
"Not exactly. Rape is nothing new to me. If he did it, I could take it. I think I was more afraid of what I might do to him afterward. And I think he knew that."
"I would've been scared," Joshua admitted. "It was a very vulnerable situation you got put in. And no matter how familiar you are with rape, I can't see how it wouldn't bother you." Joshua thought back to that moment when he had gotten too aggressive and triggered a response from Rina. The fact that she had managed to control herself spoke volumes for how far she had come.
"Oh, I didn't say that, Joshua. It bothered me." I had the washcloth soaped up and I applied it to his chest, needing something for my hands to do. Gentle slow circles, nothing too hard, and as I'd hoped, it freed my head so I could think. "But aside from that, what I hated was the lie of it. The only reason I was in that room was to gain information from him and gain it in a particularly underhanded way." I finished his chest and moved to his shoulders. "Given we'd already stated our business objective when we arrived, I'm sure he suspected my being there was in service to that. In fact, you know what he said to me?"
Joshua shook his head as he took the washcloth from Rina's hands so that he could return the favor. "No idea, but hopefully you'll let me know. I don't handle suspense too well."
"I had already decided that I'd do it and since he'd asked politely …" I held still as Joshua scrubbed my chest, lingering at all the spots he loved best. I closed my eyes and thought again of that lamplit study and told Joshua what happened next.
"All right," I told him. "Since you asked. And since you promised me—."
"Before you do, would you do me one favor? One additional favor I know I am asking much. And that is that you close your eyes."
"To … close my eyes?" I froze and everything I'd judged of the situation went sideways. What the hell? "While I do this?"
I measured him with my eyes, compared him with others I'd taken down barehanded, and decided to risk it. I stripped. Nothing shy or coy about it. Just a simple action with no meaning behind it. Only I knew better. More was riding on this than modesty. When I was naked I closed my eyes and waited for him to make his move, listening hard.
The rustle of his robes gave away his approach and I tried to gauge his position relative to mine, running evasion tactics through my head. A moment passed as he walked around me and he held true to his word—he didn't lay a fingertip on me. Another moment passed and I heard something I never would have anticipated. Not in a million years.
Al Tabr was very quietly sobbing.
"At that point I didn't know what to think," I said, opening my eyes and shaking my head. "Nothing I'd ever gone through prepared me for that kind of reaction from him. Nothing."
Joshua knew how hard it must have been for Rina to close her eyes like that, making herself doubly vulnerable. "I'm proud of you, Irina. I know that couldn't have been easy."
At this point, all the clues seem to point to the fact that Al Tabr was protecting the women in his employ, much as Joshua had once been trying to rescue the girls that had been abused on the Exeter. It was just a guess, of course, but it felt intuitively right. Perhaps something about playing the white knight made it easier to make that connection.
"What did you say to him then?"
"Nothing at first. I did as he asked to give him a beat to pull himself together and when he didn't, I opened my eyes. What else could I do, Joshua? The man was crying, like he …. The only thing that mattered to me then was finding out the reason why."
I reached out and touched his arm.
"What is it?" I asked softly, as if approaching a wounded animal. Perhaps I was. He was staring at the site of my worst injuries. I squashed the urge to cover them up. "I'm sorry, I—."
"You have many scars."
"Well, you…." He had a thing for scars, I remembered. Of a sort. I trailed off, not entirely sure where this was going.
"You were hurt, I see."
"I cannot lie." There was no denying the story writ large on my body. I didn't even try. "It's true."
"Were these all … in war?" He seemed to have a hard time taking it in.
"Yes," I said, keeping my voice and my gaze even. "But it depends on how you define war."
Joshua nodded and waited for her to finish her story. Rina's scars had always been beautiful to Joshua. Something without blemishes wasn't perfection...it was manufactured. And Joshua didn't want manufactured. He had more than enough of that to last him several lifetimes.
"It was a calculated risk, making that statement about war." I ducked under the water to rinse off and came up again, pushing my wet hair back. "But he must have understood it in the spirit meant. Because he said …"
"But … you are safe. Well, you're … No one is doing this to you now. None of these look … fresh." He paused, looking closer at the more recent of my scars—the ones I got off Beaumonde—and I could see he was trying to reconcile what he saw with what he thought he knew about me. "Is your husband …?"
He asked the question oh-so-delicately and comprehension hit me, mocking me for being so slow. I knew then what I had to say, both to reassure him of my well being and to persuade him to our cause.
"No," I said softly with every scrap of conviction I had. "He is a good man. It's because of him that I am alive today. My crew is the reason I am alive today. In more ways than one."
He listened, his eyes glistening with tears, and began pulling off his robes. Knowing this was significant I stood my ground and watched. He turned his back to me as the last of his robes fell away and I saw what they hid: horrific scars marred his skin, ugly raised welts seared into his flesh. As an engineer, burns of all kinds came with the territory and I recognized those made by hot metal when I saw them. Somewhere in his past, Al Tabr had been branded like an animal, worse than an animal, and I was moved to pity so sharp it hurt.
"What … happened to you?" I asked quietly.
"My father … did this." Al Tabr was barely audible.
"Why?" Dear God, why? The cruelty of it made me want to weep.
"When he discovered that … I liked boys, he did this to me. And …" He paused. "He killed my mother. For having me. And since then I have … collected … injured strays around the Verse. Paid princely ransoms for some of them and perhaps slit a few throats for the others. To provide them … peace." Again, he waved his hand at his compound.
His suffering and his resolve to save others as no one had saved him slew me. And yet, despite my upset, a corner of my mind was racing through the information I'd gained, busily sorting through it. Like dominoes tipping, everything started falling into place and the picture made was clear: there was no way we could stage a coup against this man. Even if he decided to remain neutral and sent us away empty handed, there was no way we could do it. The very idea sickened me and the fact I had been ready to believe the stereotype without verifying it made it worse. Presented with the truth, there was really only one thing I could tell him.
"It looks like you and I are not quite so different after all."
It was much as he had guessed, although he certainly had not anticipated the level of brutality that must have been done to Al Tabr in the past. A personal quest born from empathic understanding. But that still didn't answer the question still lingering in Joshua's head.
"So, why, Rina? I mean, I understand that the situation was stressful and you handled it amazingly for someone who protests that she can only deal with machines and not people. But why were you upset to be vomiting in our bathroom? Didn't it come out right in the end?"
"It did." I hugged my knees to my chest and said to the water, "But it could have gone the other way. I walked in there fully prepared to fight my way out. I might have handed El Sahir his coup right then and there. Knowing what I know of Al Tabr now, however, I'm appalled that El Sahir would do such a thing. He's a Companion. You know how well they can manipulate people. How much of sending me in there was Nika's idea and how much of it was his? If it was his idea planted in her head, that means he was perfectly happy to use me to kill someone who didn't deserve it and if Al Tabr hadn't shown me his scars and told me how he got them, why he had so many wives, I would have been perfectly happy to kill him."
I bit my lip and slid a look at Joshua.
"And knowing that, how could I not be sick?"
Joshua smiled at her, his new wife, with all her entanglements and complexities. "Because you didn't. You can't let the what ifs rule you. That leads down the path where fear rules our lives and we become paralyzed."
He hugged her to him. "Celebrate the idea that you succeeded and a good man will continue to do good work."
I put my arms around him and held him tight, hanging onto his warmth and approbation like a drowning man a floating spar. Relief swamped me and I was hard put not to cry. For a long time now, I'd been resolutely hammering away at my internal prison, breaking it apart brick by brick. You can't remove something so completely cemented to you without pain. Each brick removed takes a piece of you with it. It's a death by a thousand cuts and I'd just lost another big chunk.
He held her tight, knowing that she was tougher than she gave herself credit for. She gave off the appearance of tough, but Joshua knew on the inside, she thought of herself as fragile...as broken. But Joshua knew better. And every time she demonstrated that toughness, Joshua knew she was taking one more step forward towards her perception approaching the reality he knew to be true.