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Lion's Bride

Lion's Bride

Lion s Bride 5

“Well, how do I know if it would be bitter to be stung by an asp? Perhaps it would be honey sweet until the death throes.” He set the pitcher down and strolled back to her. “What do you think?”

  “I think I wouldn’t like to taste the sting to see.”

  He sat back down. “Neither would I. Sometimes when I’m weary unto death, I think it would be good to go to a final rest.” He suddenly smiled recklessly. “But since I doubt if there is rest in hell, I’ll not chance it until I’m forced.”

  She stared at him, shocked. “Surely you believe that you’ll be taken to heaven. You’re a soldier, and the Pope has promised all Crusaders they will receive forgiveness and divine reward.”

  “And in return they slaughter the infidel and send plunder to Rome.” He stared down into the wine in his goblet. “Do you know, I cannot even remember all the men I’ve killed in my lifetime. Once when I was drunk, I tried to recall and count them, but there were too many. Somehow I don’t think God will be as forgiving as the Pope.” He shifted his shoulders as if throwing off a burden and drained his glass. “So I must enjoy myself while I’m still on this earth.”

  Why did she feel sorry for him? He was a brute and a barbarian who cared nothing for anyone’s needs but his own. The weariness and sadness she saw was probably only induced by the wine. Yet she found herself saying gently, “I’m sure you’re wrong. God does forgive.”

  He raised his eyes. “Will he forgive Hassan for killing your father?”

  She stiffened and did not answer.

  “Kadar thinks you lied. Did you lie, Thea of Dimas?”

  She was silent a moment and then said, “Yes.”

  He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. Everyone lies. Conrad will kiss my cheek tomorrow and stab me to the heart the next day.”

  “I don’t lie.” She amended, “Unless I have no choice. And what of Kadar? Does he lie?”

  “No. Kadar doesn’t lie.” He reached up and rubbed his temple. “My head is starting to ache. Usually it doesn’t happen until the next day. If you’re going to ask me something, you’d better do it now. I grow bad-tempered when I’m hurting.”

  He was bad-tempered when he wasn’t hurting. “Why should I ask? You said you wouldn’t grant it.”

  “Damnation.” He glared at her. “Ask it!”

  She blurted out, “My worms need leaves.”

  He stared at her in astonishment and then started to laugh. “Leaves?”

  “It’s not funny. I had another pouch full of leaves, but I had to leave it with the caravan. I thought I might have enough in the basket, but there are only a few left and—Stop laughing.”

  “I cannot.” He shook his head, his lips still twitching. “Set the poor creatures free and let them find their own leaves.”

  “I cannot set them free. I need them.” She leaned forward, her hands clenched tightly together. “They’re silkworms. When I settle in Damascus, I’ll use them to make silk for my looms. Perhaps I’ll even have enough to trade.”

  “Silk…Is that what you did in Constantinople?”

  She nodded. “Wonderful silk. I was an embroiderer for the finest silk house in the city, and I also helped care for the silk beds.” She paused. “It’s a favor I ask, but I’m willing to pay. As soon as I have my own house, I’ll make you anything you like. I have great skill, and my work was much sought after.”

  “What do you want?”

  “Tomorrow I need to go into the foothills and search out a mulberry tree.”

  “Mulberry? No other tree would do?”

  “Not as well. It’s what they’re accustomed to eating.” At least if he was listening, there was a chance of persuading him. “But I understand they do grow in this land. I spoke to a trader, and he said they’ve spread from China to here. In Constantinople we have the black mulberry, but here they have white, which is even better.”

  “The tree is white?”

  “No, the fruit is white when the tree flowers.”

  “And what if it isn’t flowering?” he said dryly.

  “It has tooth-shaped leaves. I’ll recognize it.” She held her breath. “Will you take me?”

  He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. “No.”

  “You must take me,” she said desperately. “I have to have those leaves. You’ll be rid of me as soon as I have enough to assure the worms will live until I reach Damascus.”

  “Go to bed.”

  “Selene risked a great deal to bring that basket to me—I won’t let them be destroyed,” she said unsteadily. “You needn’t accompany me. Lend me a horse and I’ll go by myself.”

  “No.” He opened his eyes. “Go to your chamber.”

  “Not until you promise me I’ll have the leaves.”

  He started to shake his head and then flinched. “I’ll promise anything if you’ll stop hammering at me.”

  “Tomorrow?” she asked eagerly.

  “Tomorrow. Get out.”

  She jumped to her feet and started toward the arched doorway. She had done all she could, but it might all be for naught. He might be too drunk to remember his promise tomorrow, or he could regard a vow made to a woman as not binding.

  “And send Tasza back to me.”

  She stopped in the doorway. “I don’t know where she is. You sent her to her quarters.”

  “I doubt if she went. Tasza can be very determined.”

  “You’ve had too much wine. You don’t need her. Let the poor woman stay in her own bed.”

  “I am here.” The woman flew past Thea and ran toward Ware. “I knew you would not stay angry with me.” She knelt before him and pressed her lips to his inner thigh. “Forgive me. I will make you forget my impudence.”

  She was fondling him with tongue as well as hands, Thea realized with shock.

  And he was responding. Boldly.

  His hands clenched tightly on the arms of the chair as he met her gaze over the woman’s head. His face was flushed, his lips full and sensual. “Stay,” he said thickly. “Watch. I want you here.”

  The heat mounted to her cheeks. Incense and musk and the smell of burning logs drifted to her. The entire room was charged, throbbing with erotic sights, sounds, and scents. Her chest was so tight, she could scarcely breathe.

  He held her gaze. “Stay,” he repeated softly.

  She turned and ran from the hall and up the stairs. Her heart was beating painfully hard and her entire body was tingling. Perhaps he was right—perhaps he did belong to Lucifer. Dear heaven, she had never felt like this before. She had actually wanted to stay in that room that breathed of sin and sensuality.

  But not to watch.

  “Where is that damned basket?”

  Thea’s eyes flew open to see Ware standing over her bed.

  “What?” She clutched the cover to her breast and scrambled to a sitting position. Dawn had not yet broken, and the chamber was in half darkness. “What are you doing here?”

  “The basket.”

  “It’s mine,” she said fiercely. “You can’t have it.”

  “I don’t want the goddamn basket. I want a leaf. I have to have a leaf or I can’t find the tree.”

  She gazed up at him in astonishment. “You’re going to look for my tree?”

  “I said it, didn’t I?” he growled.

  “Now?”

  “I’ve no patience for your questions. My head is pounding, my stomach is queasy, and this armor feels as heavy as the drawbridge of this castle. Tell me where that cursed basket is.”

  “By the window.” She hurriedly sat up, wrapped the cover around her, and flew across the room. “But you don’t have to have a leaf. I’ll go with you.”

  “Open the basket.”

  She untied the thong and opened the lid. “There’s not much left of the leaves.”

  He gazed with repulsion at the squirming mass of worms. “God in heaven, they look the way my stomach feels.” He leaned against the windowsill. “You get the leaf.”

  She carefully reached into the baske
t and retrieved a half leaf. “There’s no bigger piece.” She spied a small worm on it and gently brushed him back into the basket. “But you won’t need this. I’ll help you find a tree.”

  He gingerly took the leaf and turned on his heel. “You’ll stay here.” The door slammed behind him.

  She dropped the blanket and snatched up her gown. She slipped it over her head, then grabbed her sandals. She didn’t bother to put them on but carried them as she ran from the chamber. Beneath her bare feet the stone was cool down the staircase and out into the courtyard.

  A young soldier was holding the horse’s reins while Ware mounted.

  “I should go with you.” She hopped on one foot as she put on a sandal. “You’re not being reasonable. It may take you a long time without me.”

  He didn’t answer.

  She put on her other shoe. “What if you come back with the wrong leaves?”

  “Then I’ll go out and get the right ones.”

  “And I will help him.” Kadar was riding out of the stable and across the courtyard toward them. “But I doubt if that will be necessary. My eyes are as keen as my falcons’. I could recognize the smallest leaf from miles away.”

  “You’re staying here too,” Ware said.

  Kadar shook his head. “You need me.”

  “I need no one. I go alone.”

  Kadar yawned. “It’s too early to argue. Take an escort and I’ll let you go without me.”

  Ware’s gaze went to the mountains. “I’ll risk no men when I can offer them no plunder.”

  Risk? Thea stared at the two men in bewilderment.

  “Then I’ll have to go with you,” Kadar insisted. “I must protect my belongings.”

  “I don’t belong to you.”

  Kadar nudged his horse forward. “I hope you carry food in that pack. We cannot eat leaves like the worms.”

  “You’re not going.”

  Kadar smiled at Thea. “Trust us. We will see that your worms do not starve.”

  Ware said coldly, “This is not a battle of wills. If you try to go through that gate, I’ll knock you to the ground and I won’t be gentle about it. You don’t go with me.”

  “Ware, I…” Kadar trailed off as he met Ware’s gaze. He sighed. “It’s very difficult owning a man like you. You will take care?”

  Ware nodded and nudged his horse toward the gates.

  He was wearing armor. Thea had been vaguely conscious of the chain mail, but it took on new meaning in light of the conversation that had transpired between Ware and Kadar. “Is there danger? He’s just going to the foothills.”

  Kadar was frowning as he watched Ware ride through the gates. “It’s very early,” he muttered. “He may be safe.”

  “Are there bandits in these mountains?”

  Kadar shook his head. “Not bandits.”

  Ware disappeared from view and Kadar turned to her. “Stop frowning. The fault is not yours. You didn’t know.”

  She still didn’t know, she thought with exasperation. He was making no sense. “I only asked him to fetch me some mulberry leaves, and you act as if I’d asked him to conquer a town.”

  Kadar smiled. “He would have taken an army if you’d asked him to conquer a town. He could not, in honor, take one to conquer a mulberry tree. He says he has no honor, but you can see that is not true.”

  “I know nothing about his honor. I know only that you’re making too much of a simple task.”

  “Perhaps you’re right.” He took her elbow. “At any rate, we cannot help Ware now. We can only wait. Would you like to see my falcons?”

  “You raise falcons?” She let him lead her toward the steps. “For hunting?”

  “Partly for hunting. Partly to watch them soar. There’s no more glorious sight on earth than a falcon in flight.” He stopped as they entered the castle. “But first you must break your fast. You’re still not well.”

  “I’m much stronger today, only a little tired.”

  “Weariness can lead to illness. Garner your strength. You will need it to nurture all your worms. Are you truly a fine embroiderer?”

  “The finest in Constantinople.” She looked at him in surprise when he burst out laughing. “Well, I am.”

  “I don’t doubt it. I was just delighted by your charming lack of modesty. In truth, I find confidence very admirable. It’s like the lovely sheen on a piece of exquisite wood.”

  “Lord Ware told you of our discussion? I wasn’t certain he would remember anything I told him last night.”

  “He remembers everything.” His smile faded. “Which is sometimes a curse.”

  “Yes.” She herself had memories she would rather forget.

  “I thought you would understand.” Kadar led her toward the great hall. “Now, let us get you fed so that you can admire my beautiful birds.”

  “THIS IS ELEANOR.” He took the falcon out of her cage. “Is she not handsome? I named her for Eleanor of Aquitaine.”

  The bird was indeed splendid. “Why?”

  “Because she’s wily and fierce and has a profound dislike for being held captive. It took me over a year to train her.” He chuckled. “Which is better than King Henry did with his Eleanor. He never succeeded in taming her.”

  “Did your father tell you of Eleanor?”

  “My father gave my mother his seed and never looked back. My mother told me he died a great death battling her people.” He smiled into the beady eyes of the falcon. “It’s a pity he never realized his greatest achievement was producing me.”

  There was no antagonism in his voice, she realized wonderingly. “You don’t hate him?”

  “When I was a boy, I hated him. My mother died when I was five, and life was not easy for me on the streets of Damascus. I was a purloin and shunned by both my peoples.” He put Eleanor back in the cage and opened the next enclosure. “But I rose above it.”

  “How?”

  “Knowledge. I stole learning as I did fruit from the bazaars. I learned from the Franks and I learned from my mother’s people.” He took out another falcon. “To my horror I discovered both were right…and wrong about most things. How can you hate when there is no truth that cannot be challenged?” He held out the bird to her. “This is Henry. He’s less fierce than Eleanor and does not have her sense of purpose. She never relents once she sights prey. I’ve discovered that the female can often be more determined when in full flight.” He met her gaze. “Haven’t you made that discovery also?”

  He was no longer referring to his falcons. She said, “But first she must reach full flight,” then added, “And there are always those who wish to put her in a cage or use her. Even you, Kadar.”

  He nodded. “It’s the nature of man.” He put the falcon back in the cage. “But when their use is fulfilled, I’ll set them free.”

  “And their use is to hunt?”

  “Actually, to intercept.” He carefully latched the cage. “Saladin and a few Frank commanders use carrier pigeons to carry orders to their troops. Ware decided we should use falcons to make sure the pigeons never reach their destination.”

  Though Kadar had spoken casually, almost indifferently, Thea shivered. She had a sudden, vivid picture of fierce Eleanor savagely plucking a pigeon out of the sky.

  “Life is always a battle. You can’t stop it; you can only choose the battleground,” he said as if reading her thoughts. “If a pigeon reaches its target, men die. If a falcon stops the pigeon, different men die.”

  There was no savagery in his voice. Yet she was suddenly seeing a harder, darker side of Kadar. “And you choose Lord Ware’s battleground.”

  “For the time being.” He chuckled. “It’s my bane for saving his life. Now I find I cannot bear to see him destroyed.”

  “How did you save his life?”

  “I found him wounded and near death. He had fled to the Old Man of the Mountain for safety but didn’t reach him in time.”

  “Old Man of the Mountain?”

  “Sheikh Rashid ed-Din Sin
an. He is the King of Assassins. It was a clever move on Ware’s part. No one ventures into Sinan’s domain without invitation.”

  “Then what were you doing there?”

  “Knowledge.” He smiled. “One must know the dark paths as well as the bright. But sometimes there’s such a thing as learning too much, of delving too deeply. I was becoming lost and was ready to return to Damascus when I found Ware on the path. I nursed him back to health and took him to Sinan’s fortress.”

  “From whom was he running?”

  He hesitated and then shrugged. “I reveal nothing that everyone in this land doesn’t know when I tell you that he was running from the Knights Templar. What do you know of them?”

  “What everyone knows—that the Knights Templar is an order of warrior monks. They’re the finest soldiers in Christendom and the wealthiest. They sell their services both to merchants and to royalty for vast sums. Nicholas paid them once to guard a caravan he was sending to Cairo.” Her brow wrinkled in thought as she tried to remember anything else she had heard. “A goodly portion of their fees go to the Pope, but some of their gold is said to be kept in their own storehouses.”

  “Ah, yes, and you can see why the Pope has such affection for the order.” He stroked the falcon’s feathers with a gentle forefinger. “And gave them such power that they are feared more than Saladin.”

  “Why were they pursuing Lord Ware?”

  “Unfortunately, they have no fondness for prodigal sons. They wished to wipe him from the face of the earth.”

  She shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

  “Ware was a Knights Templar, perhaps the greatest warrior in the order. When he was cast out, the Grand Master issued an order that he be killed.”

  She stared at him, stunned. “He was a monk?”

  Kadar burst out laughing. “I found it surprising, too, until I came to know him. He has many more sides to his character than you would think.”

  A vision of Ware sitting in that firelit room while Tasza caressed him with her mouth came back to her. “A monk?” she repeated.

  “I’m told sometimes a battle can be as stirring as a woman, and the Knights Templar are a special breed.”

  “Why did they cast him out?”