As soon as they were out of the suite and in the hallway, Rohan released Kev's arm and turned to face him. Raking his hand through his hair, Rohan asked with mild exasperation, "What did you hope to get out of killing Win's doctor?"
"No doubt you would have. Win didn't seem to be enjoying it, however."
"Why is Harrow here?" Kev asked fiercely.
"I can answer that one," Leo said, leaning a shoulder against the wall with casual ease. " Harrow wants to become better acquainted with the Hathaways. Because he and my sister are… close."
Kev abruptly felt a sickening weight in his stomach, as if he'd swallowed a handful of river stones. "What do you mean?" he asked, even though he knew. No man could be exposed to Win and not fall in love with her.
" Harrow is a widower," Leo said. "A decent enough fellow. More attached to his clinic and patients than anything else. But he's a sophisticated man, widely traveled, and wealthy as the devil. And he's a collector of beautiful objects. A connoisseur of fine things."
Neither of the other men missed the implication. Win would indeed be an exquisite addition to a collection of fine things.
It was difficult to ask the next question, but Kev forced himself to. "Does Win care for him?"
"I don't believe Win knows how much of what she feels for him is gratitude, and how much is true affection." Leo gave Kev a pointed glance. "And there are still a few unresolved questions she has to answer for herself."
"I'll talk to her."
"I wouldn't, if I were you. Not until she cools a bit. She's rather incensed with you."
"Why?" Kev asked, wondering if she had confided to her brother about the events of the previous night.
"Why?" Leo's mouth twisted. "There's such a dazzling array of choices, I find myself in a quandary about which one to start with. Putting the subject of this morning aside, what about the fact that you never wrote to her?"
"I did," Kev said indignantly.
"One letter," Leo allowed. "The farm report. She showed it to me, actually. How could one forget the soaring prose you wrote about fertilizing the field near the east gate? I'll tell you, the part about sheep dung nearly brought a tear to my eye, it was so sentimental and-'"
"What did she expect me to write about?" Kev demanded.
"Don't bother to explain, my lord," Cam interceded as Leo opened his mouth. "It's not the way of the Rom to put our private thoughts on paper."
"It's not the way of the Rom to run an estate and manage crews of workmen and tenant farmers, either," Leo replied. "But he's done that, hasn't he?" Leo smiled sardonically at Kev's sullen expression. "In all likelihood, Merripen, you'd make a far better lord of the manor than I will. Look at you…… Are you dressed like a Rom? Do you spend your days lounging by the campfire, or are you poring over estate account books? Do you sleep outside on the hard ground, or inside on a nice feather bed? Do you even speak like a Rom anymore? No, you've lost your accent. You sound like-"
"What is your point?" Kev interrupted curtly.
"Only that you've made compromises right and left since you came to this family. You've done whatever you had to, to be close to Win. So don't be a bloody hypocrite and turn all Rom now that you finally have a chance to-" Leo stopped and lifted his eyes heavenward. "Good Lord. This is too much even for me. And I thought I was inured to drama." He gave Rohan a sour look. "You talk to him. I'm going to have my tea."
He went back into the suite, leaving them in the hallway.
"I didn't write about sheep dung," Kev muttered. "It was another kind of fertilizer."
Rohan tried unsuccessfully to smother a grin. "Be that as it may, phral, the word 'fertilizer' should probably be left out of a letter to a lady."
"Don't call me that."
Rohan started down the hallway. "Come with me. There actually is an errand I want you for."
"It's dangerous," Rohan coaxed. "You might get to hit someone. Maybe even start a brawl. Ah… I knew that would convince you."
One of the qualities Kev found most annoying about Cam Rohan was his persistence in trying to find out about the tattoos. He had pursued the mystery for two years.
Despite the multitude of responsibilities he shouldered, Rohan never missed an opportunity to delve further into the matter. He had searched diligently for his own tribe, asking for information from every passing vardo and going to every Romany camp. But it seemed as if Rohan's tribe had disappeared from the face of the earth, or at least had gone to the other side of it. He would probably never find them-there was no limit to how far a tribe might travel, and no guarantee they would ever return to England.
Rohan had searched marriage records, birth and death records, to find any mention of his mother, Sonya, or himself. Nothing so far. He had also consulted heraldic experts and Irish historians to find out the possible significance of the pooka symbol. All they had been able to do was dredge up the familiar legends of the nightmare horse: that he spoke in a human voice, that he appeared at midnight and called for you to come with him, and you could never refuse. And when you went with him, if you survived the ride, you were changed forever when you returned.
Cam had also not been able to find a meaningful connection between the Rohan and Merripen names, which were common among the Rom. Therefore Rohan's latest approach was to search for Kev's tribe, or anyone who knew about it.
Kev was understandably hostile about this plan, which Rohan revealed to him as they walked to the hotel mews.
"They left me for dead," Kev said. "And you want me to help you find them? If I see any of them, especially the rom baro, I'll kill him with my bare hands."
"Fine," Rohan returned equably. "After they tell us about the tattoo."
"All they'll say is what I've already told you-it's the mark of a curse. And if you ever find out what it means-"
"Yes, yes, I know. We're doomed. But if I'm wearing a curse on my arm, Merripen, I want to know about it."
Kev gave him a glance that should have felled him on the spot. He stopped at a corner of the stables, where hoof picks, clippers, and files were neatly organized on shelves. "I'm not going. You'll have to look for my tribe without me."
"I need you," Rohan countered. "For one thing, the place we're headed to is kekkeno mushespuv."
Kev stared at him in disbelief. Kekkeno mushes puv, translated as "no-man's-land," was a squalid plain located on the Surrey side of the Thames. The open muddy ground was crowded with ragged Gypsy tents, a few dilapidated vardos, feral dogs, and nearly feral Roma. But that wasn't the real danger. There was another, non-Gypsy group called the Chorodies, descendants of rogues and outcasts, mainly Saxon in origin. The Chorodies were truly vile, dirty, and ferocious, without customs or manners. Going anywhere near them was virtually asking to be attacked or robbed. It was hard to imagine a more dangerous place in London except for a few Eastside rookeries.
"Why do you think anyone from my tribe could be in such a place?" Kev asked, more than a little shocked by the idea. Surely, even under the rom baro's leadership, they wouldn't have sunk so low.
"Not long ago I met a chal from the Bosvil tribe. He said his youngest sister, Shuri, was married long ago to your mm baro.'" Rohan stared at Merripen intently. " It seems the story of what happened to you has been told all through Romanija."
"I don't see why," Kev muttered, feeling suffocated. "It's not important."
Rohan shrugged casually, his gaze trained on Kev's face. "The Rom take care of their own. No tribe would ever leave an injured or dying boy behind, no matter what the circumstances. And apparently it brought a curse on the rom baro's tribe… Their luck turned very bad, and most of them came to ruin. There's justice for you."
"I never cared about justice." Kev was vaguely surprised by the rustiness of his own voice.
Rohan spoke with quiet understanding. "It's a strange life, isn't it?… A Rom with no tribe. No matter how hard you look, you can never find a home. Because to us, home is not a building or a tent or vardo… home is a family."
Kev had a difficult time meeting Rohan's gaze. The words cut too close to his heart. In all the time he had known Rohan, Kev had never felt a kinship with him until now. But Kev could no longer ignore the fact that they had too damn much in common. They were two outsiders with pasts full of unanswered questions. And each of them had been drawn to the Hathaways, and had found a home with them.
"I'll go with you, damn it," Kev said gruffly. "But only because I know what Amelia would do to me if I let something happen to you."
Somewhere in England, spring had covered the ground with green velvet and coaxed flowers from the hedgerows. Somewhere the sky was blue and the air was sweet. But not in no-man's-land, where smoke from millions of chimney pipes had soured the complexion of the city with a yellow fog that daylight could barely penetrate. There was little but mud and misery in this barren place. It was located approximately a quarter mile from the river and bordered by a hill and a railway.
Kev was grim and silent as he and Rohan led their horses through the Romany camp. Tents were loosely scattered, with men sitting at the entrances and whittling pegs or making baskets. Kev heard a few boys shouting at one another. As he rounded a tent, he saw a small group gathered around a fight. Men angrily shouted instructions and threats to the boys as if they were animals in a pit.
Stopping at the sight, Kev stared at the boys while images from his own childhood flashed through his mind. Pain, violence, fear… the wrath of the rom baro, who would beat Kev further if he lost. And if he won, sending another boy bloodied and broken to the ground, there would be no reward. Only the crushing guilt of harming someone who had done no wrong to him.
What is this? the rom baro had roared, discovering Kev huddled in a corner, crying, after he had beaten a boy who had begged him to stop. You pathetic, sniveling dog. I'll give you one of these- His booted foot had landed in Kev's side, bruising a rib-for every tear you shed. What kind of idiot would cry for winning? Crying after doing the only thing you're good for? I'll drive the softness out of you, big bawling infant- He hadn't stopped kicking Kev until he was unconscious.
The next time Kev had beaten someone, he had felt no guilt. He had felt nothing.
Kev wasn't aware that he'd frozen in his tracks, or that he was breathing heavily, until Rohan spoke to him softly.
Tearing his gaze away from the boys, Kev saw the compassion and sanity in the other man's eyes. The dark memories receded. Kev gave a short nod and followed.
Rohan stopped at two or three tents, asking the whereabouts of a woman named Shuri. The responses were grudging. As expected, the Roma regarded Rohan and Kev with obvious suspicion and curiosity. The Roma's dialect was difficult to interpret, a medley of deep Romany and what was called "tinker patois," a slang used by urban Gypsies.
Kev and Rohan were directed to one of the smaller tents, where an older boy sat by the entrance on an overturned pail. He carved buttons with a small knife.
"We're looking for Shuri," Kev said in the old language.
The boy glanced over his shoulder into the tent. "Mainl." he called. "There are two men to see you. Roma dressed like gadjos."
A singular-looking woman came to the entrance. She was not quite five feet tall, but her torso and head were broad, her complexion dark and wrinkled, her eyes lustrous and black. Kev recognized her immediately. It was indeed Shuri, who had only been about sixteen when she had married the rom baro. Kev had left the tribe not long after that.
The years had not been kind to her. Shuri had once been a striking beauty, but a life of hardship had aged her prematurely. Although she and Kev were nearly the same age, the difference between them could have been twenty years instead of two.
She stared at Kev without much interest. Then her eyes widened, and her gnarled hands moved in a gesture commonly used to protect oneself against evil spirits.
"Kev," she breathed.
"Hello, Shuri," he said with difficulty, and followed it with a greeting he hadn't said since childhood. "Droboy tume Romale."
"Are you a spirit?" she asked him.
Rohan looked at him alertly. "Kev?" he repeated. "Is that your tribal name?"
Kev ignored him. "I'm not a spirit, Shuri." He gave her a reassuring smile. "If I were, I wouldn't have grown any older, would I?"
She shook her head, her eyes slitting in a leery squint. "If it's really you, show me the mark."
"May I do it inside?"
After a long hesitation, Shuri nodded reluctantly, waving both Kev and Rohan into the tent.
Cam paused at the entrance and spoke to the boy. "Make certain the horses aren't stolen," he said, "and I'll give you a half crown." He wasn't certain whether the horses would be more in danger from the Chorodies or the Roma.
"Yes, kako," the boy said, using a respectful form of address for a much older male.
Smiling ruefully, Cam followed Merripen into the tent.
The structure was made of rods stuck into the ground and bent at the top, with other supporting rods fastened to it with string. The whole of it was covered with coarse brown cloth that had been pinned together over the ribs of the structure. There were no chairs or tables. To a Rom, the ground served perfectly well for both purposes. But there was an abundant pile of pots and trenchers in the corner, and a light pallet covered with cloth. The interior of the tent was heated by a small coke fire glowing in a three-legged pan.
At Shuri's direction, Cam sat cross-legged by the fire pan. He stifled a grin as Shuri insisted on seeing Merripen's tattoo, which provoked a long-suffering glance from him. Being a modest and private man, Merripen was probably cringing inside at having to undress in front of them. But he set his jaw and tugged off his coat, and unbuttoned his vest.
Rather than remove his shirt entirely, Merripen unfastened it and let it fall to reveal his upper back and shoulders, the muscled slopes gleaming like copper. The tattoo was still a mildly startling sight to Cam, who had never seen it on anyone but himself.
Muttering in deep Romany, using a few words that sounded like Sanskrit, Shuri moved behind Kev to look at the tattoo. Merripen's head lowered, and he breathed quietly.