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Lion's Bride

Lion's Bride

Lion s Bride 15


  She quickly lowered her gaze to the earth so he wouldn’t see the sudden happiness that soared through her. She had not realized until this moment how much she would miss the hours they spent together while poring over those dratted accounts. “No, and, of course, I must keep my word to Kadar.”

  He nodded solemnly. “Promises are very important.” He turned and walked back toward the castle.

  HOUSE OF NICHOLAS

  CONSTANTINOPLE

  “You will find the worker you need here,” Nicholas said, puffing with pride. “My women are the most skilled in all the world.”

  “I can see that by the samples of embroidery you showed me.” Kadar carefully kept his tone without expression as his gaze traveled around the huge room.

  There was no conversation, no laughter, as women and older children sat hunched over their hoops, shoulders bent, eyes fixed on the pattern in front of them, sewing feverishly. No one there was over her fortieth year, yet they all looked worn and aged. The sparkling cleanliness and brightness of the chamber, with many windows to let in the sunshine, made the theft of youth more horrible, Kadar thought. A truly terrible place.

  But not as terrible as the carpet room from which they had just come. He had thought he had become hardened to life in all its forms, but the sight of those small children with their crippled, gnarled fingers had sickened him.

  “You’re very fortunate. They seem to be accomplishing a great deal,” Kadar said. “How many hours a day do they work?”

  “As many hours as the sun shines. Sunrise to sunset. Come along.” Nicholas moved down the first aisle. “I must show you Clarissa’s work. She has a fine, mature skill even though she’s barely ten and four.” He cast a sly glance over his shoulder. “And when she’s not at her task, she will bring your loins as much pleasure as your purse. Only last week I sank between her thighs and found her—”

  “And you’ll want a fine price for her.” Kadar shook his head. “I told you I wanted someone younger…and cheaper.”

  Nicholas sighed and moved farther down the row. “Evadne may please you. She is only nine. She has developed little skill as yet, and I may be persuaded to release her.”

  Kadar’s gaze discreetly searched the bent heads. Red hair, Thea had said. Where the devil was she? “How long has she been here?”

  “I bought her two years ago. Her fingers were too long for the carpets, so I had her trained on the embroidery hoops.” He stopped before a small delicate girl with flaxen hair and haunted eyes. “What do you think?”

  He thought Nicholas was a callous bastard. He tilted his head as he appraised the embroidery before the girl. “Not as good as I would like.”

  “If you don’t pay, you can’t expect quality.”

  She was there in the next row. Small, thin, red hair, her gaze fixed on the hoop in front of her. “That one seems to have more skill.”

  “Selene? It’s true she’s older, almost eleven.” Nicholas moved brusquely toward the child. “But I cannot give you the same price. In three or four years she’ll be old enough to give you pleasure…as well as children.”

  No mention yet that she was also his daughter. The whoreson would probably pull in that small fact when the negotiations became more heated. “I have slaves to give me pleasure. I want only her skill.”

  He stopped in front of the red-haired child’s hoop. Her embroidery was exquisite, he thought. Too bad. The price would have been cheaper if he could have argued that point. She had not even glanced up at him. She just sat hunched, ignoring them as her needle went in and out of—

  He went still, his gaze on the child’s back.

  “What is this?” He pushed aside the loose cotton tunic covering Selene’s shoulders. Red stripes crisscrossed the girl’s narrow back. “Perhaps she has less value than you claim.”

  Nicholas shrugged. “She has a biting tongue, but that doesn’t affect her skill.”

  Kadar’s forefinger traced a white scar. “This one is older.” The child did not look up, but he could feel the muscles of her back knot beneath his touch.

  “She was caught helping a runaway slave. We needed to know the slave’s destination so that she could be recovered.”

  So Selene had met with punishment when Thea had fled. “And did she tell you?”

  Nicholas shook his head. “We could not continue; she would have died. It became a choice of losing two slaves instead of one.”

  “No, you wouldn’t have wanted to do that.” No mention that the escaped slave was the girl’s sister. He wondered if he could chance cutting the bastard’s throat before he left Constantinople. No, he decided regretfully, he would have to deny himself that pleasure. Freeing the child was the important thing. “But these marks do show a temperament that could prove troublesome.” His hand dropped away from the child’s scarred back. “I suppose you’ll have to show me another slave.”

  He was two aisles away from Selene, listening to Nicholas’s praises of another poor child when he glanced back at her.

  She was staring at him, bold green eyes glittering with resentment in her thin face.

  He smiled at her.

  The enmity in her expression didn’t change. If anything, her belligerence increased.

  Evidently not one to be won over by a sweet smile. He felt a ripple of interest mixed with pleasure. It would be a much more interesting trip back to Dundragon if the child offered him some challenge.

  “Lower your eyes.”

  A squat, heavy woman was standing behind Selene with a slender whip in her hand.

  Selene did not lower her eyes.

  Nicholas’s attention was caught, and he broke off extolling the skills of a dark-haired child. “No unpleasantness, Maya. We have a guest.”

  “She’s wasting time. She must finish this side of the tunic by nightfall,” Maya said. “You wished it for the caravan leaving day after tomorrow.”

  Nicholas’s brow furrowed. “True.”

  Kadar wagered the child would not stop staring at him while he was in the room even if the whip did fall on her. It was a point of honor to her now.

  He turned and moved quickly toward the door. “I’m weary of these discussions. Decisions are so trying. Can we not continue tomorrow?”

  Nicholas followed him. “Of course. We will have a goblet of wine and then go visit the baths. It is the most divine of pleasures.”

  Except beating helpless children. “You’re the kindest of hosts.” Kadar beamed. “I look forward to it.”

  The stranger came to the garden that evening.

  Selene stiffened as she saw him standing in the arched doorway, his gaze moving casually among the women gathered in groups about the fountain.

  He was probably choosing which woman to pleasure him tonight, Selene thought bitterly. Tomorrow after he had relieved his lust, the negotiations for the purchase of a slave would resume.

  He was younger than most of the merchants and traders who came there. Young and richly robed, with a beauty as startling as the torch burning on the wall beside him. But comely or not, he was like all the others—greedy for gold and for pleasure.

  He was moving leisurely toward the bench where she sat a few yards apart from the other women.

  She tensed and then relaxed. He would not choose her for pleasure. Even if he was one who liked children, she was too thin and homely.

  He stopped in front of the bench. “You look lonely. Why are you not with the other slaves?”

  She did not answer.

  He sat down beside her and she caught a whiff of clean soap and fragrant balsam. It was the way Nicholas smelled when he came back from the city baths. “My name is Kadar ben Arnaud, Selene. Do you know why I’m here?”

  “To buy a woman to start an embroidery house. We all know that.” She added with deliberate rudeness, “But you are too niggardly to pay for any but a beginner.”

  He did not take offense. “True. You sew very well. Do you like to embroider?”

  “No,” she said baldly
. “You don’t have to like something to do it well.” She edged away from him on the bench. Why didn’t he get up and go away?

  “Even if I buy you, I promise I’ll not hurt you,” he said softly. “You need not fear me.”

  Panic soared through her. She had thought he had erased her from his list of choices. “I don’t fear you.” She added fiercely, “But I won’t work for you. I’ll sit at my hoop and do nothing. Find someone else.”

  “You prefer it here? Nicholas doesn’t seem an overkind master.”

  “I must stay here.”

  He changed the subject. “Why were you glaring at me this afternoon?”

  “You touched me. I don’t like to be touched.”

  “Why not?”

  She didn’t answer. She wished he would go away.

  “That hulking woman is coming toward us. I find her most unpleasant.”

  He meant Maya, who was edging closer to hear their conversation. “Then you should choose your woman for the night and leave us all in peace.”

  “Which one should I choose?”

  The question startled her. She turned to look at him. “What?”

  “It’s an indelicate question to ask a child, but I mustn’t offend Nicholas by refusing his offer of a bedmate, and I’d prefer a woman who takes pleasure as well as gives it. Is there such a one here?”

  What manner of man was he? she wondered in bewilderment. Every one knew a woman’s pleasure meant nothing.

  “Is there?”

  She glanced around the garden before nodding at a small dark woman. “Deirdre. She’s not as comely as some of the others, but she is very peculiar. She seems to like it when Nicholas ruts with her.”

  He smiled. “I thought you’d know. You’re one of the ones who watch, aren’t you?”

  She asked warily, “What do you mean?”

  “You stand apart and watch and learn. Poor Selene. I think you have a great hunger for life. Sitting here stitching in this cocoon must drive you mad, so you close everyone out and you think and you watch.”

  How had he known that?

  He answered her unspoken question. “At your age I was a watcher too. I still am when the occasion warrants it.” He smiled. “And you do warrant it, Selene.”

  He was not like the others. He was far more dangerous, for he had eyes to see. She jumped to her feet. “I don’t want you watching me. Go away.”

  “I didn’t mean to offend you. In fact, I wished to reassure you.” He glanced at Maya. “But now isn’t the time. We will talk later.” He wandered toward the women at the fountain.

  He said a few words to Deirdre and then took her hand and led her toward the door.

  “He says kind words to you, but he only wants to keep you tame until he gets you back to his own country,” Maya said behind Selene. “Then he’ll set the whip to you.”

  “He won’t choose me to work in his house. You heard what he told Nicholas. He thinks I’d be too much trouble.”

  “But he finds your embroidery adequate. He will choose you. Tomorrow he and Nicholas will strike a bargain and you’ll be gone.” Maya smiled maliciously. “You might as well go with him meekly. I know you’re waiting for her to come back, but she never will. Thea’s probably a whore in the streets by now.”

  “Be silent.”

  “How could she free you anyway?”

  Selene tried to shut out her words, shut away the pain.

  “She was so clever. She thought she was better than the rest of us.”

  “She was never unkind to you.” She met Maya’s eyes. “And she was better than you. A dog in the streets is better than you.”

  Color flared in Maya’s heavily jowled cheeks.

  Selene knew she should have kept silent. She would pay in the workroom tomorrow. She didn’t care. She could stand only so much from Maya.

  The gong sounded the signal for bedtime.

  A gong to rise, a gong to summon them to meals, a gong to order them to the workroom. Sometimes she heard that gong in her dreams, deafening her, suffocating her.

  She passed Maya, who was muttering low threats, and moved reluctantly toward the house of women.

  She will never come for you.

  Maya’s words repeated over and over in her head as she settled down on her pallet.

  Thea would come, she thought desperately. Thea loved her. She would never leave her alone.

  But Mama had loved them and left them alone. Her arms had been holding Selene and then they had fallen away.

  But Thea was different. She was as strong as Mama had been weak. She would not let Selene stay in this place. She would come for her.

  She fought back the stinging behind her eyes. She had not cried since Mama died. Tears changed nothing. She had heard Mama weeping in the night sometimes, and it had not helped her. Her life had not got better. She had not lived. Mama…

  Don’t think of Mama. Don’t think of Thea. One minute at a time. She could bear life that way. Thea would come for her.

  But what if Maya was right and the young merchant chose her and took her far away from Constantinople?

  Panic soared through her. Maya was wrong. She would be here when Thea came back for her. God would not be that cruel. Kadar ben Arnaud would choose one of the others.

  “I told you,” Maya said softly, her eyes drinking in Selene’s shock and suffering as if it were a honeyed drink. “You are only a child and a slave. You can do nothing about it. Our master says you must be ready to leave on the morrow.”

  “You lie.” Selene steadied her voice. “It’s not true.”

  “It’s true. You sail tomorrow evening. But Nicholas is far from pleased. The young rooster was a much cannier bargainer than he had hoped. They argued all day, but Nicholas could not squeeze more from him.” Maya sailed away toward another group of women to spread the word.

  Selene sat down on the bench. She was shaking with anger as well as fear. She could not leave. He had no right to tear her from her only hope of freedom.

  You can do nothing.

  Perhaps Maya was right and she was too young to fight this world of grown-ups who cared about nothing but gold.

  Thea, help me.

  Thea was not here to help her, and she was not a child. Children were young, and she had lost her youth the night Mama had died.

  She must help herself.

  “She is gone?” Kadar repeated.

  “But I’m sure we will find her,” Nicholas said quickly. “She is only a child. Where could she go? No doubt when she gets hungry she will return.”

  Not even if she was starving, Kadar thought grimly. Christ, he should have gone to her last night after the deal had been struck. But what good would it have done when he would not have been able to talk to her without that muscular mamba hovering nearby? “When did she leave?”

  “Some time during the night.” He frowned. “She must have climbed the garden wall. None of the guards saw her.”

  Then she’d had hours to lose herself in the city.

  “She has been sheltered under my roof and knows little of the wickedness she will find on the streets. Trust me, she will come running back in a few days.” Nicholas paused. “But you understand the bargain was struck. She is now your property. I’m not responsible.”

  “You’re saying you won’t return my gold?”

  Nicholas did not answer directly. “She’s not my responsibility.”

  Yes, the bastard definitely needed his throat cut. Too bad Kadar had to keep him alive to find out if Selene returned.

  “You’ll postpone your sailing and stay until you retrieve her?” Nicholas asked.

  “I can do nothing else. You made sure she was too costly to leave behind.”

  “Not that costly,” Nicholas said sourly. “Perhaps fate decided to punish you for cheating me of her services.”

  Not for robbing him of a daughter but of a slave to give service. Kadar had had enough. He turned and strode toward the door. “I’ll send a messenger each day to see if
she has returned.”

  He paused outside the gates of the House of Nicholas. Where should he start? He knew nothing about Constantinople. Well, according to Nicholas, neither did Selene. The knowledge brought him a ripple of unease. Cities were all the same, infested with the wolves of the world, all ready to gobble up the innocent and unwary.

  He could only hope he reached Selene before the wolves did.

  DUNDRAGON

  “I was right. Women have no head for chess,” Ware said as he looked down at the chessboard. “I find it very satisfying to beat you at the game.”

  “Is that why you insist we play after we sup each evening?” Thea asked.

  “No, I have another reason.”

  “What reason?”

  “Would you like to play another game?”

  “What reason?”

  He leaned back in his chair and smiled at her.

  He wasn’t going to tell her. He often had those maddening moments of reticence, but they came less frequently now. “Well, I’ll play no more with you.” She pushed her chair back and stared into the fire. “And I could win, if it meant enough to me.”

  “I know you could.” When she glanced up, he quickly amended, “At least, part of the time.”

  She grinned at him. “Most of the time. Your attention wanders on occasion.”

  “Does it? I must watch that fault. Such conduct could kill a soldier.”

  “But not here.”

  “No, not here.”

  A comfortable silence fell in the firelit room. Who would have guessed she would ever be this comfortable with Ware of Dundragon? she mused. “Isn’t it time Kadar returned with Selene?”

  “Soon. He may have had trouble persuading Nicholas to relinquish her.”

  A flicker of anxiety disturbed the peace of the moment. “But he will be able to do it?”

  “Kadar can be more manipulative and patient than Saladin himself. If he doesn’t wrest victory one way, he’ll approach it from another direction. He’ll bring her.”

  “And what if he doesn’t?”

  “She’ll still come to you. I’ll go after her myself.” He smiled grimly. “But my ways are not as civilized as Kadar’s. I may be forced to make orphans of you.”