Crusader's Torch Page 15

He stared up at the timbered ceiling of her room. He felt tired now, and the game she demanded of him vexed him as it intruded on his more distressing thoughts. "I did not intend to say her name."

"You were so moved that you thought it could only be that dead woman," mocked Joivita, starting to enjoy the discomfort she was giving to her lover; nothing pleased her as much as the power she exerted with men, either through her body or in spite of it.

Rainaut held back the sharp retorts that slipped through his mind as quickly and unwelcome as Olivia's image had been. "I am in a faraway land. You made me feel I was home once more," he said with the same ease he would have spoken to his aunt who lived with the nuns. "I never intended to give you displeasure of any kind."

"Certainly not," said Joivita. "You intended to plough me."

This was so baldly true that Rainaut could not keep from chuckling once. "And instead, this."

Joivita peered at him suspiciously over the gathered sheet. "And what would you call this?"

"A misunderstanding," said Rainaut with a touch of humor. He was resigned to completing the game, for he knew with utter certainty that he would have need of Joivita again. "You and I both have misunderstood."

"So I see," she responded with a direct look at where the sheet covered his loins. "A misunderstanding. Something is not standing, is it?" She smiled at her own joke.

"No," Rainaut said brusquely.

"And?" Joivita sensed the conflict in Rainaut. "Sier Valence?" she offered.

"If I say I want you, you will tell me that I make you my whore, and you will turn me from your bed. If I say that I do not want you, you will call me a priest or a eunuch and turn me from your bed. If I say I want you but cannot take you, you will laugh me out of your house." He recited these possibilities in a flat, unemotional voice. "So, I beg you, tell me what I might say to you that would return me to your esteem." It was another troubador's phrase, but this time Joivita heard it favorably.

"Very clever," she said, as much to herself as to him. "You are not quite a dolt, then." Her smile was predatory. "And yet you falter when you could—"

"I am not a barbarian, Joivita," Rainaut said, growing angry with her again. "If you want me to force you to do the thing we both desire, I will do so." As he said it, the idea became appealing. There were times, he knew, when the love-making of poets and courtiers had no place between sheets, unless those sheets belonged to a book.

"I will fight you," she announced as her face flushed, turning dark in the light from the braziers. "Oh, Sier Valence, I will fight you." She held her hands up, the fingers curved like claws. "I will leave marks on you."

"You may try," said Rainaut, feeling his body respond to her challenge. He reached out and pulled the sheet away from her. "You may try," he repeated as he moved over her, his weight pinning her to the bed.

Her hands rose, ready to scratch his face, but he caught them and stretched them over her head, keeping them out of range.

"You are hurting me," she protested eagerly. "How you are hurting me." Her attempts to free her hands were only token effort; she moved beneath him to give him more access to her body.

"Be silent," Rainaut said, knowing that it was what she wanted to her, and hoping that if both of them said nothing, he could not forget himself again. Roughly he tugged her knees upward, feeling her sigh at this use. He braced himself and then pressed into her.

At his penetration, Joivita gave a little shriek and pulled her hands from his, reaching down to score his back with her nails. She felt the strength of his desire and it filled her with more delight than his flesh did. To be able to drive a lover to madness, to violence, was a sign to Joivita of how great her power was. Only an implacable enemy could evoke more passion than she could, and no enemy could control another as she controlled her lovers. She rocked with him, her nails drawing blood now. Her eyes were closed, and she imagined that Sier Valence Rainaut was Richard Coer de Leon; she wanted Richard lo Reis more than she wanted any other man in the world, for she had heard that he could not abide the bodies of women and took his pleasure with his men. At Richard's dreamed surrender, Joivita's body spasmed and twisted beneath Rainaut's, and her cry was hard and high, like a shout in battle.

Moments later, Rainaut was finished. As soon as his semen was out of him, Rainaut was off Joivita and staring up at the ceiling once more. He was panting and he stank of sweat. His flesh was sated now; his senses were famished.

"Impressive," said Joivita softly, but whether she spoke to him or to her own hopes she did not know.

Rainaut said nothing. Inwardly he cursed himself for permitting Joivita to spur his lust as she had, and for his own lack of will that let him succumb so easily. He laced his fingers together behind his head and tried to follow the meanderings of the patterns on the beams.

"What now—contempt?" teased Joivita as she rolled to Rainaut's side, her breast against his arm to tantalize him.

"It is not good for the soul to use women," said Rainaut, recalling everything that Fraire Huon had said to him in the five years he had been his tutor.

"Tell that to your body, Sier Valence," Joivita said as she ran her finger up his arm to his chest and along the collar bone, pausing to circle the knot of an improperly healed break. "How old were you when this happened, Sier Valence?"

He moved her hand away. "I don't remember—fourteen, fifteen."

"So long ago," she said, the mockery back in her eyes. "So very long ago."

He refused to look at her. "And who remembers so long ago?"

Her finger continued up his neck, pausing where a thin flake of skin came loose as she touched it. "Your armor is chafing?"

"It's the heat," he said, turning away from her.

"Is it hard, Sier Valence, to wear such armor and to fight in the sun? Does the acton grow heavy with blood and sweat?" She ran her tongue over her lips. "Does it? And does the mail cut through the acton and score your skin? As I've scored your skin?" This last was her own triumph, and as she said the words her eyes glowed.

"I have not had to fight," Rainaut said stiffly.

"Oh, yes. I forgot. You Hospitalers can fight only when attacked; you are not permitted to make the first assault, are you? Is that what happened to you tonight?" She laughed and moved closer to him. "You're not like the Templars. No wonder you have so many graces."

"Joivita, don't." He faced her at last. "If all you want is to jeer, then let me find a dwarf for you."

"Oh, a dwarf would not serve me at all," she said, so blatantly obvious in her intentions that Rainaut opened his hand to strike her. "I need much more than a dwarf."

"To jeer?" he challenged.

"Possibly," she answered, her finger on his lip. "When there is nothing else to do." She reached out and drew her sheet back around her. "There's blood on your side." Her eyes brightened. "Sit up, Sier Valence."

Rainaut had started to move, but her eager command stopped him. "Why?"

"I want to see your back. I want to see my handiwork." She pulled at him, nothing gentle or seductive in her actions now. "Hurry. I want to see."

Reluctantly, Rainaut swung his legs out of bed and sat up, facing the door, away from Joivita. "Well?"

Her face was luminous, and her breath quickened as she saw the long gouges she had made in his back. "Very good." she said to herself. "Oh, very, very good." Deliberately she put her hand on the most severe of the scratches and drew it across the torn skin. Though he made no sound, Joivita could feel Rainaut wince as she did this, and she was pleased. "You will not forget me, either, Sier Valence. Like your dead wife, you will remember me."

Slowly Rainaut started to get up. "I must leave."

"Now that you have taken what you wanted, you are going away," she corrected him, suddenly petulant.

"If that is how you will have it, Bondama, then that is what I am doing." He got up slowly, not certain how Joivita would respond.

"Will you return?" she asked as she adjusted her sheet around her.

He hated himself for answering "Yes," but he could not bring himself to lie.

Joivita grinned. "When?" She could see his resistance and gloried in the knowledge that she would be able to wear him down, that his need for her was too strong for his will to contradict.

"I don't know," he said as he looked for his clothes. His Hospitaler's mantel was draped over the clothes chest by the door, but where had he put the rest of them? Staring at his mantel, he could not help but feel he had dishonored the cross on it.

"Soon", she said, making it an order. "If you wait too long, I will have to find another." She pouted, hoping he would look at her and see her displeasure, but he did not. "I will not send you a message; you will have to send one to me."

"Of course." He was weary, body and soul. He saw the wadded heap in the corner of the room and went to sort out his clothing. Now all that was missing was his belt.

As he dressed, Joivita sat watching him, appraising him as he prepared to leave her. He was well-born, and that was an improvement on the Templars she brought to her bed. He admitted he had no fortune, but wealth was measured more ways than in gold. He was not as young as some of her lovers, but he was no graybeard, and he was tolerably good-looking, being taller than most men, and of regular but angular features. All in all, she decided, she would have to regard him as her most promising lover yet. When at last he looked at her, she moved back, stretching out on the bed, the sheet draped artfully to reveal more than mere nudity would have done. "I am desolate," she said.

"You will find consolation," said Rainaut with unhappy certainty, since he had no illusions about Joivita.

"Nothing so sweet as you, Sier Valence." She lowered her voice, making it more musical. "If I know others, it is for my bread; you I know for delight."

Rainaut bowed. "You are gracious, Bondama." He knew she was not entitled to be called bondama, but he sensed she was flattered by it, and he hoped that flattery would permit him to escape without another disagreement.

"So are you, Sier Valence." She raised one arm and let it drop languidly above her head, deliberately reminding him of how he had held her down. "You are many things."

He did not want to have to listen to her catalogue nor to think of his own, so he gathered up his mantel. "I will send you word again, when it is possible for me to visit you," he told her, loathing the desire that drove him to her.

"I will count the hours in my prayers," she said, reaching out to touch his hand.

He pulled away from her. "It will not be before Sunday. I have duties, and I am to go with the Franconian pilgrims for one day on the road to Sidon." He did not add that he had requested the task.

"Only a day of escort? Only two days away from Tyre?" she asked, amused at his discomfort.

"It is what was requested. There are two knights with them who are making the pilgrimage on foot, at the order of their bishop, so they are not without protection. The robber bands will be sorry if they attack them. Those who take slaves will not find what they like among the Franconians, for all save the disgraced knights are crippled or disfigured in some way." He fastened his mantel with a square brooch that was decorated with his arms.

"Poor unfortunates," said Joivita without sympathy. "Has the pilgrimage given them back their arms and legs, I wonder, or restored their—"

"Stop," said Rainaut very quietly. "You are not to speak so again in my presence. It is blasphemy and heresy to say such things, even in jest, and I am sworn to defend the honor of Our Lord and God."

"I—" Joivita did her best not to appear as much taken aback as she was. "I never meant—"

Rainaut nodded. "Certainly."

"I have never intended any—" She saw his face and fell silent.

He came to the side of the bed and looked down at her. "Understand me, Joivita. I am a slave to your body, but when you seek to touch my soul, then I am your executioner, though it bring me to my own death. I will risk my allotted time in Hell for you, but not my salvation."

She nodded, afraid to speak. It was delicious to feel this fear, to know beyond question that she would make him pay dearly for it. Carefully she rolled to her side and looked up at him from under her lashes.

"Your tricks are damning, Joivita. Use them at your peril." He turned away from her, his hewn countenance looking as if it had been carved out of the heart of stone.

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