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Lion s Bride 11
She frowned in puzzlement. “Why are you angry?”
“I’m not angry. I’m just telling you that freedom is not such a prize. Some prisons can be more comfortable and pleasant than the world beyond them. All captivities aren’t as cruel as the one you suffered at the House of Nicholas.” He paused. “Did he beat you?”
“When I was a child. Later I learned…” She shrugged. “What do you wish me to say? I had ample to eat, a clean place to sleep. When I showed promise, Nicholas had me taught languages and numbers so that I could speak knowledgeably with the merchants who came to buy the silk. There was even a walled garden outside the women’s quarters where we were permitted to go in the evening after the light failed. My mother said we were more fortunate than many.” She folded her arms across her chest. “But as years went by, I began to hate it more and more. I could not breathe. I watched Selene bent over her loom from dawn to dusk, and I wanted to pick her up and carry her away to where there was sunlight and the smell of flowers and—” She broke off and drew a shaky breath. “It wasn’t fair. No one should be allowed to own another person.”
“So it was for Selene you ran away?”
“No, I could have waited until conditions were better, if I had only Selene to consider.” She met his gaze. “A prince from Florence came to see Nicholas to buy some bolts of silk for his wife. He had a fondness for fair-haired women and decided he would like to buy me as well.”
“Nicholas sold you?”
“Why not? The prince offered a great sum for me. It’s true my skill made me valuable, but if my body is worth more…” She smiled bitterly. “But Nicholas is a wily trader. The negotiations went on for days. I didn’t wait for them to be completed.”
“He never considered himself to be unkind. We were property. Weren’t we fed and watered? Disciplined only when we failed in our duty to him? I’m sure he was outraged when I ran away.”
“How did you get passage on the caravan?”
“Balzar, the leader of the caravan, came often to the House of Nicholas. For years I’d been working in secret on a silk robe with embroidery fit for an emperor. I offered to trade it to him in exchange for food, water, and a place in the caravan.”
He lifted his brows. “A silk robe for sheltering a runaway slave?”
“A robe fit for an emperor,” she repeated. “Balzar was very vain. He had to have it. Besides, there was little shelter involved. If I’d been discovered, he would merely have disclaimed knowing who I was.”
“You stole the silk for the robe?”
“I don’t steal,” she flared. “I planted the trees that nurtured those silkworms, and the embroidery was my design and my work. Nicholas’s wealth grew tenfold when he started to display my designs. Did I not deserve something? Do you know how hard it was to find the time to do such an intricate design? Every morning I crept out in the garden in half darkness when I could barely see and then later had to rip half the stitches because I’d made mistakes. It took me almost two years to—”
“I wasn’t condemning you,” he interrupted. “I only asked.” He smiled crookedly. “What’s a length of silk when all Christendom knows I stole a much greater treasure?”
“Don’t be absurd.” She was still annoyed with him. “Why do you say things like that? I told you that it was clear you’re too blunt to indulge in thievery.”
“Indeed? Then how do you account for all the riches you see in the castle?”
“I don’t have to account for them. It doesn’t interest me.” She shrugged. “Perhaps you are a thief. Kadar says you ask great fees for protecting caravans and fighting battles. Perhaps that could be considered thievery.”
His lips twitched. “Certainly the lords who hire me consider it so.”
He had almost smiled, she realized. She had a sudden urge to see if she could make him do it again. “No, I told Kadar the reason you were cast out of the order was your lustfulness. You broke the law of abstinence.”
He did smile and looked years younger. “It’s true I found that restriction a great burden.”
She nodded. “I thought as much.”
His smile faded. “And what do you know of lust? Kadar tells me you escaped the raping at the caravan.”
“I saw coupling at the House of Nicholas. When the merchant was of importance, Nicholas would sometimes invite him to the women’s quarters and let him choose one of the women to pleasure him.”
“And you watched it?”
“No, I closed my eyes. She told me it wouldn’t hurt her but that I should not watch.” She did not want to think back on that night. She had seen nothing, but she had heard the soft laughter of the men, the grunts, the labored breathing, and then later, when her mother had come back to her, the sound of smothered sobs. “She lied. He did hurt her. Perhaps not her body, but he hurt her.” Her voice shook with remembered rage. “That is what it is to be a slave. To have no choice, to know that mind and body and skill are not your own. Do not speak to me of a pleasant captivity. There is none.”
“Very well. We won’t discuss it.”
But something unspoken lingered in the room, and again she felt uneasy. She stood up. “I must go to Haroun.”
He let her go this time, watching her as she crossed the room. “You say you grew new mulberry trees for Nicholas? How?”
She stopped, puzzled at the change of subject. “Like any other tree. He bought young trees from a trader and planted them in the grove. I tended them and made sure the roots were strong.”
“Is that what you plan on doing in Damascus?”
“Yes, or trade for them.”
“Another robe for an emperor?”
“You wouldn’t scoff if you’d seen it.”
He met her gaze. “I’m not scoffing. I believe you.”
She felt a rush of glowing warmth. “You do?”
“I believe you can do anything you set out to do.”
He meant it, she realized. “I promise that it won’t compare with the banner I shall make for you,” she said eagerly. “Emperors will envy you. You’ll be able to pass it on with pride to your sons and they will give it to their sons. It will be—” She broke off as she saw his expression. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” He moved from the chair and lay down on the bed. “I’m more weary than I thought, and all this talk of sons bores me. I think I’ll take a nap. Run along to Haroun.”
He had not been bored. It was pain she had seen in his face. What had she said to hurt him? “I didn’t mean—” How could she tell the dratted man she was sorry for a hurt he would not admit existed? She would not waste her time.
“Meet me in the courtyard at noon,” he said without opening his eyes.
“Because I wish it. Didn’t Kadar tell you to bear me company?”
“Then bear me company in the courtyard this noon.”
“But I don’t—” He had turned over on his side, ignoring her. She opened the door. “If it pleases me.”
“I’m sure it will please you to keep your promise.”
She sighed with exasperation as she shut the door. She did not want to meet with him again so soon. It was too wearing on the emotions. When Kadar had asked her this service, she had known that it would be difficult, but she had not thought she would feel this vulnerable. It would be easier if she just had to confront surliness and rejection. She couldn’t understand his sudden interest in her past when he had told her before that he did not care about the details of her life. Now he was asking too many questions, probing too deeply. It disturbed her. Her instinct was to avoid him until her composure returned.
But she had promised Kadar.
Well, then she would have to make sure Ware had no opportunity to continue that intimacy. He could not ask a multitude of questions if others were present. She would just make certain she was never alone with him.
She had not needed to worry about being alone with Ware, Thea thought dazedly, as she saw the column of mounted soldiers fully armored and filling the courtyard. There was even a wagon being readied for departure at the rear.
“Where have you been?” Ware frowned down at her as he brought his horse closer to the steps. “I told you noon.”
“It’s only a little after.” She was too astonished to take offense at his brusqueness. “Where are you going?”
“I didn’t bring you back enough of those damned mulberry leaves,” he growled. “You’ll need more now that you’re staying.”
He was right. It would be at least two months before Kadar came back with Selene, and she had only another three-week supply. “You’re taking all these men? But you said you wouldn’t risk—”
“Things are different now.” He bent down and extended his arms. “Come. I want to get back before dark.”
“I’m to go also?”
“Why else would I tell you to meet me?”
“You wouldn’t take me before.”
“I told you, things are different now. I may need you.”
Then, of course, she must go. She took a step closer and he swung her up before him. “But you know what the tree looks like now.”
He didn’t answer as he waved the column forward.
Riding with him today was different from that night he had brought her to Dundragon. The metal of armor pressing against her back was already hot from the sun, and yet she was oddly comfortable. “Are we bringing the wagon to carry the leaves?”
“We won’t need it. A few baskets will be all that’s necessary.”
“I’m taking no chances.”
“But it’s a waste of—”
“Are you going to chatter all afternoon?”
“Not if you refuse to listen to good sense. Why should I care if you look foolish before your men?” She abandoned the conversation and leaned back against him. She didn’t want to talk anyway. The scent of cypress and palm were drifting to her, and the sun on her face brought its own contentment.
An hour later they drew up on the slope leading to the thatch of mulberry trees. It was too soon, she thought languidly.
Ware dismounted and plucked her from the saddle. His bearing was tense as his gaze raked the grove and then the foothills surrounding them.
“What is it?” she asked. “I saw no one. Is there someone here?”
He didn’t answer for an instant, and then she saw him relax. “No, there’s no one here.” He turned away and barked orders to his soldiers, dividing his forces so that half were to fetch the leaves while the others were to remain on guard. She drifted down the slope and into the grove, gazing with pleasure around her. The trees were strong, nurtured by a kinder sun than in Constantinople. They would give shade and sustenance for many years to—”
She whirled as a branch crashed to the ground. Abdul’s sword cleaved through the air and bit into another branch.
“No!” She ran toward him. “Stop it.”
He stared at her, startled.
“Stand back.” Ware was striding toward her. “He’s only getting your leaves.” He gestured to the soldiers who were moving with swords drawn on the trees. “For God’s sake, that’s what you want.”
“You must pick the leaves and leave the branches. I won’t have the trees destroyed.”
“It will take twice as long,” Abdul said. “And we have no ladders for climbing.”
“Is that how you got my leaves?” Thea asked Ware.
“Did you think I blew on them and they fell to the earth?” Ware asked.
“I suppose it’s my fault. I should have told you to be careful of the trees.” She turned back to Abdul. “But you cannot cut these branches.”
Abdul looked at Ware.
“I’ll not have my soldiers take off their armor to climb those trees,” Ware said grimly.
“Then I’ll pick the leaves myself,” Thea said. “It will take a little longer, but I told you we don’t need a wagonload of leaves.”
“I don’t want it to take longer.” He stared at her determined expression and then whirled away in exasperation. “By all the saints. Abdul, have those men climb the lower branches and pick the leaves. But they’re not to take off their armor.”
Abdul sighed and turned away.
“I’m truly not being unreasonable,” Thea said. “These mulberry trees are very important. If you could see what beauty results from the—”
“It’s being done,” Ware said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s reasonable or not. I just want this over as quickly as possible.” He grimaced. “And I’d wager my men feel the same way. That armor is heavy and not meant to be worn when climbing trees. Besides, there is little dignity in the task. A soldier should not be asked to climb trees and pick leaves.”
“It’s a worthy task,” Thea said. “It should make no difference who does it. A tree gives sustenance—”
A crash behind her.
She whirled angrily, thinking that Abdul had disobeyed Ware’s order.
Abdul was sprawled beneath the tree, clutching a leaf to his armored chest. “I slipped,” he said apologetically to Ware.
“I see you did,” Ware said solemnly.
“It won’t happen again, my lord.”
Another crash. Another soldier fell to earth. Abdul gloomily amended, “Or maybe it will.”
“I hope not,” Ware said.
“I should go help.” Thea frowned worriedly. “I want no one harmed.”
“Stay,” Ware murmured. “The branches are too close to the ground to offer more harm than a bruise or two.”
She became conscious of some emotion beneath Ware’s impassiveness. His gaze was narrowed as he watched the soldiers struggle clumsily on the branches. It was as if he were waiting for something.
Another soldier crashed to earth.
She heard a strangled sound from Ware.
A minute later a fourth man sprawled on the ground.
“They’re falling like overripe oranges,” Ware gasped.
“It’s not fair they should—” She started toward the grove. “I’ll tell them to come down.”
Ware grabbed her arm. “Don’t you dare.”
“But I cannot let—”
Ware was laughing. His entire body was shaking with mirth. He had to reach out and grab at his saddle to keep upright.
“You think it funny?” she asked wonderingly.
“Like oranges.” Tears were running down his cheeks. “Like oranges…”
He was not the only one laughing. She saw to her amazement that the soldiers in the grove were also roaring with laughter.
A fifth armored soldier slipped from a limb, spreading his arms like wings as he tried to catch his balance.
She found her own lips twitching. “I should not—It’s my fault that—” She couldn’t help it. She started to laugh and couldn’t stop. When she could speak, she shook her head. “When I was at Jedha, I didn’t think there was any laughter left in the world, and yet today…It makes me feel guilty.”
“It should not. Laughter is good.” He gestured to the men below. “They lost family and friends. Do you think they no longer remember their loss because they found something to laugh about today? Laughter heals.” He added almost inaudibly, “I had forgotten….”
She stared at him in fascination. He was a different man from the one she had come to know. The lines of bitterness and cynicism had smoothed from his face, leaving only weariness and a little wistfulness. The softness wouldn’t stay; it was already changing. But she had seen it, she had shared his laughter, and she knew she would always remember.
His gaze shifted back to her face, and any hint of softness vanished. “Why do you always stare at me as if I were some odd breed of camel?”
She was immediately on the defensive. “I don’t stare—” She stopped as she abruptly realized that antagonism was what he wanted of her. Why should she give hi
m that satisfaction when she was feeling more mellow than combative? “In truth you do remind me of a camel. It is the eyelashes, I think.”
He frowned. “Eyelashes?”
“Camels have long eyelashes too. Many women would envy them.”
His eyes widened with outrage before his expression became even more forbidding. “Are you saying I have eyelashes like a woman?”
“Woman?” She gazed at him with bland innocence. “I thought we were speaking of camels.”
“You know very well—” He broke off and a grudging smile touched his lips. “I begin to feel sorry for Nicholas.”
“And you’re also as bad-tempered as a camel.” She pretended to think. “Though I’ve never seen you spit at anyone.”
“I may start any minute.”
“Then I’d better go down and help pick my leaves.” She started down the incline. “Your soldiers don’t seem to be very good at it.” She glanced over her shoulder. “I think you should train them in—” She forgot what she had been going to say when she saw how he was looking at her. Warmth. Amusement. Respect. From Ware such emotions were far more incomprehensible and disconcerting than lust or anger. She hurriedly glanced away and her pace quickened.
An hour later the baskets were filled and loaded in the wagon, and Thea climbed back to Ware.
“We’re finished,” she said. “Though not with any help from you.”
“A knight should never compromise his dignity. My men would never respect me again if they saw me tumbling from a tree.”
She made a derogatory noise.
“You don’t believe me?”
“I think you have too much pride. But we’ve prevailed without you. We can leave now.”
“We have more than enough leaves.”
“Did you find any young trees suitable for replanting?”
She stared at him, puzzled. “I suppose there were three or four. I paid little attention.”
“Get them.” He motioned to Abdul, who was standing by the wagon. “Go with her and obey her instructions.”
Abdul looked alarmed. “I thought we were done with climbing trees, my lord.”
“Digging, not climbing.”