Hard work, as I say, helped; intense experiences helped, too: scalding baths, swims through an icy sea, spicy food (such as the curry Mrs. Hudson had given us: How well she knew Holmes!), bright colours. My skin still tingled from the hot water, and I had donned a robe of brilliant crimson, but the coffee in my cup was suddenly insipid. I jumped up and went into the kitchen, coming back ten minutes later with two cups of steaming hot sludge that had caused Mrs. Hudson to look askance, although she had said nothing. I put one cup beside Holmes' brandy glass and settled down on a cushion in front of the fire with the other, wrapping both hands around it and breathing in the powerful fragrance.
"What do you call this?" Holmes asked sharply.
"A weak imitation of Arab coffee," I told him. "Although I think Mahmoud used cardamom, and the closest Mrs. Hudson had was cinnamon."
He raised a thoughtful eyebrow at me, peered dubiously into the murky depths of the cup, and sipped tentatively. It was not the real thing, but it was strong and vivid on the palate, and for a moment the good English oak beams over our heads were replaced by the ghost of a goat's hair tent, and the murmur of the flames seemed to hold the ebb and flow of a foreign tongue. New flavours, new dangers, and the sun of an ancient land, the land of my people; trials and a time of great personal discovery; our Bedu companions, Mahmoud the rock and Ali the flame. Odd, I thought, how the taciturn older brother had possessed such a subtle hand at the cook-fire, and had made such an art of the coffee ritual.
No, the dark substance in our cups was by no means the real thing, but both of us drank to the dregs, while images from the weeks in Palestine flickered through the edges of my mind: dawn over the Holy City and midnight in its labyrinthine bazaar; the ancient stones of the Western Wall and the great cavern quarry undermining the city's northern quarter; Ali polishing the dust from his scarlet Egyptian boots; Mahmoud's odd, slow smile of approval; Holmes' bloody back when we rescued him from his tormentor; General Allenby and the well-suited Bentwiches and the fair head of T. E. Lawrence, and--and then Holmes rattled his newspaper and the images vanished. I fluffed my fingers through my drying hair and picked up my book. Silence reigned, but for the crackle of logs and the turn of pages. After a few minutes, I chuckled involuntarily. Holmes looked up, startled.
"What on earth are you reading?" he demanded.
"It's not the book, Holmes, it's the situation. All you need is an aged retriever lying across your slippers, we'd be a portrait of family life. The artist could call it After a Long Day; he'd sell hundreds of copies."
"We've had a fair number of long days," he noted, although without complaint. "And I was just reflecting how very pleasant it was, to be without demands. For a short time," he added, as aware as I that the respite would be brief between easy fatigue and the onset of bleak boredom. I smiled at him.
"It is nice, Holmes, I agree."
"I find myself particularly enjoying the delusory and fleeting impression that my wife spends any time at all seated at the feet of her husband. One might almost be led to think of the word 'subservient,' " he added, "seeing your position at the moment."
"Don't push it, Holmes," I growled. "In a few more minutes my hair will be--"
My words and the moment were chopped short by the crash of a fist against the front door. The entire house seemed to shudder convulsively in reaction, and then Holmes sighed, called to Mrs. Hudson that he would answer it, and leant over to deposit his newspaper on the table. However, I was already on my feet; it is one thing to relax in the presence of one's husband and his long-time housekeeper, but quite another to have one's neighbour or farm manager walk in and find one in dishabille upon the floor.
Excerpted from Justice Hall by Laurie R. King Copyright 2002 by Laurie R. King. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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