Aden, September 1857
Where was the damn woman? For most of the recent year he had been glad when she went off on one of her secret missions, but today, to his surprise, Vladimir wanted to talk to her.
He had news … news of great importance to Vladimir. And, thus, he had decided, of great importance to Maria Bogdanova. After all, even though they disliked each other the Tsar had ensured they had to work together.
So she could savour his enjoyment of his reward for their efforts.
Her servant suggested she had only left the house that morning so she couldn't have gone far since then. A discrete check of her room suggested she had only taken the clothes she must be wearing. So she couldn't be planning a long trip in any case.
She must be going somewhere she felt safe, since she seemed to have left most of her weapons. That struck Vladimir as reckless. Far to the north, the war between the Tsar and the Sultan was one of large armies and major cities. Here it had become one of the knife in the side in a crowded market. A vicious, personal war between agents of the two states seeking influence in this region.
Vladimir guessed she might have planned to go swimming. Her taste for these warm waters surprised him but it was probably her only indulgence. If so, he knew where she might have gone.
Later that morning, he tied his horse to a scrubby tree. He had guessed right. Across the small clearing was another horse patiently eating fodder. He had come to the correct place.
Even so, he moved cautiously and as he reached the edge of the scrub slowly raised his head and looked over the beach.
To his surprise, Maria was not alone. That she had lovers was of no surprise, or interest, to him. That she felt the urge to keep them secret was. But looking again, it was clear they were arguing.
Even as he watched the man went as if to strike her.
'Big mistake, svinoi
' muttered Vladimir.
Sure enough, Maria hit him first. At that, the man pulled out a knife.
Vladimir sat back. If this was a lover's tryst it had gone wrong. If Maria was killed, he had no-one to tell. So he stood up and moved onto the beach.
As he did the fight was nearing his end. The man had fallen to the sand face down. Maria grabbed his neck and twisted.
'Bravo … well done … a textbook example we could use to train new agents'. As he advanced, Vladimir applauded. As he arrived, he realised he had misjudged the situation.
'So, me being threatened is an entertainment for you? While you hide in the woods spying on me?'
In all their arguments, Vladimir had never seen her so angry.
'While I deal, on my own, with the Sultan's latest killer'.
To her surprise, Vladimir suddenly jumped at her, bundling her to the ground. Even as they both fell clumsily onto the sand, she heard the pistol shot. And felt her companion regaining his feet and moving quickly towards a gap where a river ran onto the beach. Regaining her breath she followed.
A second shot, again poorly aimed and Vladimir slipped out of sight. As she turned the corner she saw he was pointing his own gun at another man.
Seeing her, he smiled – 'yours or mine?' Maria contented herself with a simple nod. Vladimir raised the pistol and shot the man.
'This beach is filling up with corpses'. Glancing at the one at his feet, Vladimir asked 'do we dispose of them in the sea or on the land'. 'Land' Maria replied, 'I have still not had my swim'.
They dragged the corpse back into the scrub and tipped it into a sun-baked fissure in the soil. Sweating, they returned to the beach and brought the first body up. Even as they dumped that too into the trench, Vladimir saw the glint of a musket.
'Oh this becomes tedious', turning to Maria, he asked 'yours or mine'? To his surprise she smiled and replied 'both'. They split apart and ran to where the third killer cowered. Though killer was perhaps not an accurate description, the man was clearly terrified. With reason. Shortly afterwards his body lay with the others.
Looking at her torn and dirty clothes, Maria said 'and now I will have that swim'. She started back to the beach and then turned to look at Vladimir suspiciously. 'Just why are you here? I assume it is not to spy on me?'
'Oh, my dear, I bring news'. We are to rule over a colony
and to have more men to guard us while we do so'.
To his surprise, Maria came back and then embraced him. For one so dangerous, her body felt soft and warm beneath his hands.
'Maybe I will risk one swim?'