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Lion s Bride 21
For an instant she experienced a flash of uneasiness. Selene was right. There was power here.
But wasn’t all beauty power?
And, of course, she could look away from that splendid scrap of silk.
She stood up and arched her back to rid it of stiffness. She felt strangely hollow, as if she had poured everything within her into the vessel of the banner.
Well, her strength would be replenished after she rested. She carefully took the silk off the frame and folded it. She would hem it after she woke and then give it to Ware.
If he was here. Selene had not mentioned his return. He might still be gone. This chamber had been her entire world for the last few weeks. The castle could have been seized by Saladin and she would not have known it. She would have to ask Selene when she woke…
She took off her gown as she moved across the room. Selene was sprawled inelegantly over the entire bed.
“Move over,” she whispered, nudging her.
Selene opened sleepy eyes. “Is it finished?”
Thea nodded as she crawled beneath the cover. “All but the hemming.”
“I’ll do that for you.”
“No, I have to do it. I have to do it all.” Her lids felt as if they bore weights. “But…tomorrow.”
Selene threw an arm over her and nestled close. “I’m glad it’s over,” she murmured.
Yes, it was over.
“You’ll do it at once?” Kadar asked as he watched the drawbridge being lowered.
Ware nodded. “There’s no use waiting. The longer she’s here, the longer she’s in danger. There’s no telling when the Grand Master will decide to strike.”
“I’ve no liking for this,” Kadar said. “It’s not a good thing.”
Didn’t Kadar think he knew that? “Then find another solution to keep her alive. God knows I cannot.”
“She will hate you.”
Ware nodded and spurred his horse across the drawbridge.
Selene was walking toward them across the courtyard, thin, small, but militant as the soldiers in the column behind him. “I’m glad to see you,” she said. “Why did you not come earlier?”
“Where is your sister?”
“Sleeping. She’s been sleeping for four days. She wakes only to eat and goes back to sleep.”
Ware frowned. “She’s ill?”
Selene shook her head. “Only weary unto death. She wanted to finish your banner before we left.” She turned to Kadar. “Your falcons are doing well. I think they like me better than they do you.”
Kadar grinned. “I wouldn’t be surprised. They probably feel a kinship for you. You have the same fierceness as Eleanor, while I’m a meek and gentle man.”
Selene grunted derisively. “As meek as a striking cobra.”
“Cobras can be meek as long as one is careful not to tread on them.” He got off his horse. “And it’s unkind of you to compare me to a snake. I regard myself as a lion. Or perhaps a leopard.”
“We leave tomorrow,” Ware told Selene. “Wake your sister and tell her to prepare for the journey.”
Selene’s expression lit with eagerness. “Damascus? So soon?”
Ware didn’t answer directly. “Tell her to prepare for the journey.”
Selene smiled brilliantly, turned, and ran across the courtyard.
Ware turned to Kadar. “Will you go or stay here?”
“You think to exempt me from blame?” Kadar shrugged. “I’ve always enjoyed journeys. Besides, the blame would still be mine even if I hid myself away from her wrath. You don’t intend to tell her where we’re going?”
“It would make the journey more difficult for her.”
Kadar grimaced. “And for us.”
Ware didn’t deny it. “She will be happy once she becomes accustomed to—”
“Save your arguments for her…and yourself.” Kadar moved across the courtyard. “I’ll tell Abdul that we leave tomorrow. I suppose we’re taking him this time?”
Ware nodded. “We may need a diversionary force.”
“Do you think Vaden followed us?”
“I know he did.”
“Then he’ll follow us again. How do you hope to hide her whereabouts from him?”
“Once she’s safe, it won’t matter if Vaden knows where she is. She’ll be safer there than at Dundragon.”
“You once told me Vaden could find his way into any stronghold, and that was why you kept the torches burning bright.”
“Then I must make sure Vaden won’t pursue her until he’s killed me.” He smiled sardonically. “And I’m sure that you’ll fly to her rescue like one of your falcons, if that happens.”
“If she’ll ever trust me again.”
“She’ll trust you.” It was Ware whom Thea would never trust again.
“And you may live longer than any of us. This Vaden can’t be as formidable as you’ve said.”
“No? I’d wager he’d rival your Old Man of the Mountain.”
“Let’s hope you never have an opportunity to compare. The old man was not at all pleased when you trespassed on his domain. I barely managed to pluck you away before he sent an assassin to slit your throat.” Kadar sighed. “Little did I know what a problem you’d become to me.”
“You can always go back to him. In truth, I believe that would be an excellent idea.”
“A covey of assassins surrounding me instead of a wall of soldiers?” Kadar shook his head. “Do you never give up?”
“No.” He could not give up trying to save them. No matter what the cost, they had to survive. “Tell Abdul to be ready at dawn.”
“Wake up! We’re going to Damascus, Thea.” Selene jumped on the bed and bounced up and down. “You’ve slept enough.”
Thea drowsily opened her eyes. “Damascus?”
“Lord Ware is back. We’re to leave for Damascus tomorrow morning. We must make preparations.”
Her gaze went to the folded banner on the table. “We can’t go. I haven’t finished—”
“You can hem it later and send it to him.” Selene’s face was luminous with excitement. “Damascus, Thea. It’s starting…. Our whole life is starting.”
Thea wished her head didn’t feel as if it were stuffed with cotton. She shook her head to clear it.
“What’s wrong? Aren’t you excited?”
“Of course I am. I’m still half-asleep.” She hugged her sister before slowly sitting up in bed. She felt terribly fragile. The hollowness she had experienced right after she had finished the banner had not vanished entirely. “I don’t know why I’m still so groggy.”
Selene wrinkled her nose. “Because you didn’t sleep for three weeks. It was most strange.” She jumped off the bed and pulled Thea to her feet. “But you can’t sleep any longer. We have too much to do. What is first?”
“Go ask Jasmine to order me a bath.” She tried to think. “And then go make sure the silkworms will have enough leaves for the journey.”
Selene nodded and ran from the room.
Perhaps she would have time tonight to hem the banner. No, she must talk to Jasmine and Tasza and make sure they knew how to care for the trees. Oh, well, perhaps Selene was right. She could send Ware the banner once they were settled in Damascus.
But she didn’t want to send it. She wanted to see his face when he saw what she had created for him.
But her work had been as much for herself as for him. Once she had started, the banner had possessed her.
As Ware had possessed her. She was suddenly glad for the lingering hollowness. It would make the parting less painful.
She brushed the hair out of her face. She would not think of Ware now. If she did, some of this blessed numbness might disappear. She must just prepare for the journey that would take her away from him.
“Good God, what have you done to yourself?” Ware asked roughly as she came down the steps at dawn the next morning. “You’re skin and bones.”
“I’ve lost only a little weight. I’ve been working.”
p; “That gown is hanging on you, and your wrists…” He trailed off before adding, “I don’t want to hear of this foolishness again.”
“You will not. After all, I’ll be in Damascus and you’ll be here. It won’t be your concern.” She smiled with an effort. “Any more than it is now.”
“It’s my concern if I say it is. I wouldn’t have wanted a banner if I’d known it would have brought you to this.”
“I wanted it for you. I owed it to you.” She found she could not take her gaze from him. He was fully armored, big and boldly masculine, his bright-blue eyes glittering in the glow of the candles. This was the warrior she had seen that first night when she had thought him a brute and a beast. It would have been better if she had not grown to see beyond that facade. It would have made this parting easier.
“Selene said you were sleeping a great deal.” He stood looking at her. “Are you…well? I did not—”
“I’ve had my flux,” she interrupted, wanting to get it over. “I am not with child.”
“That’s good.” His face was blank, but she knew him too well now not to sense the pain. “You’ll be much safer.”
And he was robbed of his chance that part of him would live through his child. The numbness was melting as she looked at him. She wanted to reach out and hold him, comfort him. Dear God, was she always going to feel this aching tenderness for him? She wished desperately that there had been only passion between them. Passion was of the moment, easily dismissed, but tenderness…
“What are you thinking?” he asked suddenly.
She swallowed to ease the tightness of her throat. “I was thinking I wish everything to go well for you. You have been very kind to me.”
“Have I?” He smiled grimly. “By God, you’re easy to please. I took your body, endangered your life, and now I’m going to—” He broke off and turned on his heel. “Come along. Your sister is waiting in the courtyard with Kadar. If it can be called waiting. She was running around, giving orders and arranging everything to suit herself. You’d think she was a woman grown.”
Thea followed, grateful that the painful moment was at an end. “She’s never been allowed to be anything else.” She walked past him down the steps leading to the courtyard. The courtyard was ablaze with the torches carried by the soldiers. Horses milled about uneasily, and Thea glimpsed a wagon half-hidden behind the columns.
Jasmine was standing on the steps and turned as she saw Thea. “I came to bid you farewell. Good journey.”
“Thank you.” She was tempted to embrace Jasmine, but she was afraid of offending the woman’s dignity. “You’ll remember to practice everything I taught you?”
“I told you I would.” She paused. “You will not forget us?”
Thea shook her head. “I’ll send for you as soon as I can.” She hesitated. “I’ve had little chance to speak to you of late. Lord Ware has—I thought you might resent—”
Jasmine’s gesture cut her short. “Don’t be foolish. Why should I care if you bed Lord Ware when you offer Tasza a better way to live? You are a woman in this man’s world. If you think coupling with him will give you more power, I cannot fault you.”
She should have known Jasmine would regard all coupling as a way to gain a goal, Thea thought sadly. Her experience in life would not permit any other conclusion. Well, perhaps she was right. Ware and she both had something to gain. He had come to her because he wished a child. She had gone to his bed because she wanted to make sure he remained in the castle. Surely that was as coolly calculated as any bargain Jasmine or Tasza had ever struck.
Cool? No, there had been nothing cool about their coming together. Their coupling had been hot and stormy, changing every moment, gaining power and strength. Whatever had been their beginning had soon become transformed. But Jasmine would not be able to comprehend that alteration. “I’m glad you understand.”
“Of course I understand. Now Lord Ware takes you to Damascus and gifts you with many bolts of silk. It’s good for all of us.” Jasmine dismissed the subject with a wave of her hand. “Now, you must work hard, but not as hard as you have these last weeks. That was not good. You must not fall ill. We can wait…a little while.” She turned away. “But not too long.”
Thea smiled ruefully as she watched Jasmine enter the castle. She supposed she should be grateful Jasmine had decreed she did not have to work day and night to succeed in their common goal.
“I’m going to ride.” Selene rushed up to Thea, grabbed her hand, and pulled her down the rest of the steps. “Kadar wanted me to ride in the wagon, but I told him that it wouldn’t do. You must ride too.”
Thea shook her head and smiled. “I don’t know how, and this is not the time to learn. I’ll ride in the wagon.”
“No.” Ware mounted his horse, then leaned down and held out his arms. “You ride with me.”
“Is it necessary?”
“Yes.” Then he shook his head. “No.” He added haltingly, “but it would please me.”
This might be the last time he would ever hold her, she realized suddenly. She took a step forward and held up her arms. He lifted her onto the horse before him.
As he lifted the reins, he spoke in a voice so low, it was almost inaudible even to her. “I thank you. It is most kind of—”
“Be silent.” She had to stop to steady her voice. “You’re such a fool. It was my wish also.”
Tears blurred her vision as they rode through the gates and over the drawbridge. Torches everywhere, fire and flame and light. She remembered her first impression of Dundragon and how she had complained to Ware that such extravagance was wasteful.
“You’re shaking.” Ware’s arms tightened about her. “Are you cold?”
“No. How long will the journey take?”
“Two days, perhaps a little longer. Stop shaking. You needn’t be afraid. Nothing will happen to you. I’ll keep you safe.”
“I’m not afraid.” She leaned back against him. It was true. At that moment she did not fear the danger that lay beyond the gates. She felt only sadness and regret and a terrible sense of wrongness. She should not be leaving Dundragon. She should not be leaving him.
She was being stupid. She had no place here. Was she to stay and become his mistress, bear his children, live for his pleasure? She would be as much a slave as she had been in the House of Nicholas.
He did not want or need her. Oh, perhaps in his bed, but any woman would do as well there. He had never said he felt anything but lust for her. When she was gone, he would probably take another woman and be just as content.
By the saints, she would not weep. She determinedly blinked back the tears. This was what she wanted, what they both wanted. It was not as if she were deserting him. He was the one who had arranged the journey and rushed her from Dundragon.
She would not weep.
It was two days later that Thea caught sight of the fortress. The walls seemed high and strong as those of Dundragon, but they surrounded a castle that was completely different. It was like the exotic Arab palaces she had passed on the way from Constantinople.
“What is that place?” Thea asked, her gaze on the fortress. “It’s very beautiful.”
“El Sunan. It belongs to Kemal ben Jakara,” Ware said. “He’s a very powerful sheikh and guards this province for Saladin.”
“From the Franks?”
He shook his head. “These lands are too isolated to attract the Franks, but there are more bandits in these hills than Kemal can battle and any number of rival sheikhs who eye his power with envy.”
“You seem to know a great deal about him.”
“We’ve encountered each other upon occasion.”
“But you fought for the Franks.”
Ware started down the hill. “All Islam knows that the Templars cast me out. An outcast has no true allegiance. Kemal and I understand each other.”
She felt a ripple of uneasiness. “Is it safe to pass so close to his fortress?”
“I told you, Kemal and I
understand each other. No harm will come to us.”
He kicked his horse into a gallop.
“You’re heading straight for the fortress. Are we going to spend the night?”
His answer was barely audible. “Yes, we’re going to spend the night.”
To her astonishment the gates were thrown open without a challenge, and they rode into the courtyard. The palace was even more beautiful than she had imagined from the hill. Onion-shaped towers crowned the sprawling building, and white marble balconies shone in the strong sunlight.
“Welcome, Lord Ware.” An Arab, dressed in flowing robes and a turban inset with a giant blue stone, was striding across the courtyard toward them. His plump cheeks creased as he smiled broadly. “I see you have brought your treasure.”
“Yes.” Ware dismounted and helped Thea down from the horse. “This is the lady Thea, Kemal.”
Thea gazed with bewilderment at the man Ware had addressed. This must be Kemal ben Jakara, but there was no hint of antagonism in his demeanor. He was a small, plump man, close to his fiftieth year, with snapping black eyes and an eager smile.
Kemal’s gaze raked Thea from head to foot. “I can see why you do not wish anything to happen to her. Fair-haired women have great value, and she’s very comely. I shall take great pleasure in this task.”
Thea stiffened with shock.
“Not too much pleasure. Remember she’s not your property,” Ware said. “She belongs to me.”
“I’m a man of honor. I’ll keep my word.” Kemal beamed at him. “As long as you keep yours.”
“What is this?” Thea asked Ware. “What are you talking about?”
A faint frown furrowed Kemal’s brow. “She addresses you boldly. You have not taught her well.”
Thea’s hands slowly clenched. “What is this?”
“You’ll stay here under Kemal’s protection.” He turned to Kadar. “Take her and Selene to the House of Women.”
Kemal snapped his fingers and a young man ran forward. “This is Domo,” he told Thea. “He is chief eunuch, and you’ll obey him as you would your master. Go with him.”
“House of Women,” Selene whispered from atop her horse.