Crusader's Torch Page 19

"I… I am a Hospitaler. There were those needing short escort, and it was my honor, with my fellow-knights, to provide it." He lifted the wine and poured some into her cup before filling his own. "We who have taken Hospitaler's vows ought to remain chaste."

"The way priests are supposed to be chaste now?" she suggested. "Because it is convenient for you not to have a wife or children? Or is it because you would rather spend your time with your fellow-knights, as they say Reis Richard does?"

Rainaut's face darkened. "They speak slander who say such things of my King. And they speak slander who say it of me." This last was very pointed, and he watched her narrowly as he said it. "Those of us who vow to give our lives to the service of Christ and His Victory do not cavil at chastity when we are prepared to give our lives." He meant what he said, but even to himself he sounded pompous and self-aggrandizing.

"Your lives, yes. What knight will not give his life for his liege?" She looked at him with seductive, taunting eyes. "But a death is a single thing, isn't it? Once it happens, it will not happen again," she went on, her smile blighted with malice. "But chastity, that goes on day after day after day, and night after night after night after night, not at all like death—more like prison, I think. Which are harder—the days or the nights?"

"Chastity, when it is for God, is a light burden," said Rainaut, thinking that until he met Olivia, it was true enough. Now, little as he wanted to admit it, sating his body was no longer satisfaction enough, and if he intended to imperil his soul, he wanted more than release: he wanted rapture.

"And do you confess the times you spend with me?" Joivita challenged him, moving so that the side of her cote fell open, revealing her flesh from the outer curve of her breast to the rise of her hip. "Do you?"

"They do not call that fashion the gates-of-hell for nothing, Bondama," said Rainaut, wondering where this angry banter was leading them. He took his cup and drank, noticing that the savor was not as good with this jar as it had been with the first.

"Then do you risk your soul to enter them?" she asked, moving toward him so that he could better glimpse her body. "It has been almost three weeks, Sier Valence. Have you forgot how it is with us? Do you still think of your dead wife when your flesh hardens in the night, or do you blame demons and lust?" She touched his hand, holding him firmly by the wrist. "Do you want to have me? Or have your vows become so important to you?"

"My vows have always been important. That you could bring me to forget them is…" He stopped short of accusing himself of laxness, which he knew would infuriate her. Instead he lifted her hand and kissed it. "I have not come because I can offer you nothing, and that shames me more than you."

"You are a knight," she pointed out.

"I am a Hospitaler. As long as I wear the black-and-white, I am bound to my oaths. My… my confessor has shown me the error of my conduct and how greatly my sins traduce the honor of the Order." This last was a lie, but an acceptable one, he hoped. Other Hospitalers had been admonished in this way. He was not the only knight who struggled with the demands of the Hospitalers or Templars, and the needs of his body.

"Your men-at-arms are married, and so are your infirmarists," said Joivita, pouting. "Why are knights different from the rest?"

"Because we are knights," said Rainaut as he drained his cup of wine. "Because we fight for Our Lord above our King, and for that we must become part of His Church so that we cannot betray our fealty." He filled his cup again. "You know this, Bondama. Everyone knows it. Why do you ask me now, when you have known it from the first?"

She laughed, and this time there was nothing false and nothing kind in the sound. "I like hearing you blame yourself. I like hearing your doubts and your despair, Sier Valence. It pleases me, since you will not set your vows aside, to scourge you with them."

"Then you must have great satisfaction now," he said, feeling distaste as he looked at her. "Why do you want me to have to choose?"

"Because," she said, moving toward him once more, her garments snowing tantalizing promises of her body, "it makes your fall sweeter. All men lust, Sier Valence, but most of them are content to rut and be done. But you, and those like you—you are not quite the same. Oh, you lust like men, but you do not rut. You drug yourselves, like those who eat syrup of poppies. Some men become the worse for it, taking women in hatred and blood." She cocked her head. "You have seen it, haven't you? The women after the battles, raped and ruined. The others are like you, Sier Valence. They seek to hide their lusts in other guises." She took his hands in hers and pulled them under her cote. "This is what you want, but you will not let yourself have it until your need is so great that you would cross the desert barefoot for me."

Rainaut felt his flesh rise; he was shamed by the ease of Joivita's skill, at the quick and simple way she brought him to this state. "I didn't come here for…"

"Yes, you did," she countered playfully, setting his nerveless fingers against the rise of her breasts. "You always come to me for this, but you always lie to yourself, so that you need not blame anyone but me for what happens. Since you are a pleasant lover, it suits my purposes to have you think this. But remember, Sier Valence, that I am not deceived." She kissed him, her mouth open on his closed lips.

At first he tried to push her away, but slowly the resistance went out of him as he felt his passion grow. Hating himself for his weakness and hungering like one famished, he began to pull her cote off her shoulders. He resigned himself to his failing once again, knowing that he was betraying more than his Hospitaler's oath now; he was also betraying his love of Olivia.

When Joivita stood naked, she began to undress Rainaut, her experienced hands divesting him of weaponry before anything else. "You are thinner," she remarked, tossing his cotehardie aside. As she pressed against him, she licked up his neck to his jaw. "Admit it, you have wanted me every day you stayed away."

"Yes," he muttered.

"And you have dreamed of me, haven't you?" She kissed him before she let him answer.

"I have dreamed," he said obliquely, wanting to be through with her. "All men dream."

Her laughter was low in her throat, almost a growl. "Poor Hospitaler, so noble and pious." She was about to kiss him again when she stopped. "Have you been sunburned, Sier Valence?"

"I don't know," he said, perplexed by her strange question and change of manner. "It's possible."

"There's a place like a burn on your cheek. Haven't you noticed?" She tilted his head with her hands, inspecting the patch of skin.

"Hospitalers do not use mirrors; how would I notice?" To his surprise, her apparent indifference was stimulating to him. Before he had not been eager for her, only needful. Now he began to enjoy the game again, to want to take the time needed to make the most of their meeting.

"Your page or squire shaves you," she reminded him.

"Celadon or Huon shaves me," said Rainaut. "They haven't mentioned a burn."

"Perhaps it is from your armor." She touched the place. "Your beard is very light there. It is probably the armor, rubbing, that has caused it." Her smile changed again. "So. You want me after all."

"Yes," he said, reaching for her with more enthusiasm than before. In a small part of his mind, he was curious about Joivita's skill, about her ability to play on his body as some musicians played on harps and rebecs, or beat out rhythms on the tabor that would make a lame man dance. That he would not—could not—resist her was so apparent that he did not make any effort to excuse his actions. Between his thumb and fingers her nipple hardened, and he felt a brief savage pride that he was not the only one captured by the bonds of flesh.

"Not here," Joivita said breathlessly a short while later.

"Where, then?"

"My chamber. The bed is ready. It was filled with roseleaves this afternoon." She took his hand and started toward the door. "The slaves know enough to leave us alone."

"Then why not here?" He wanted no delays now, for his body ached with desire.

"In my chamber," she insisted, almost dragging him from the room.

The scent of roses was cloying, so strong that its sweetness was almost bitter. Two braziers gave the room its light without making it much hotter than the sun in the day had done.

"My clothes—" Rainaut protested, aware that he was two rooms away from his weapons and garments.

"My slaves will bring them when I call for them," Joivita assured him as she sank back on the wilted petals. "Come. I yearn for you."

Rainaut sighed as he sank down beside her. "There had better be no thorns in these roses," he murmured as he pulled her beneath him. He felt her open to him from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. What gave her this power over him, this continued tie when his heart and soul denied her? He pressed into her, shoving her knees back with his shoulders so that he could penetrate further.

"Do not falter, Sier Valence," Joivita urged him, her words coming in single quick breaths. "Hurry."

For an answer he began to move, steadily, deeply, wishing with every thrust that the woman who shuddered under him was not Joivita but the Roman widow, whose love he could not seek, either in honor or in propriety.

Joivita drew her nails along her lover's back, feeling the skin tear and smiling as he tensed and bucked. It was almost over, and she was sure he would not refuse her for so long again. She remembered to sigh and roll her eyes upward as he finished, and to kiss him as he got off her. "You are a marvel, Sier Valence," she said, trying to recall if she had told him that recently. Men became suspicious if they heard the same phrase too often.

"You flatter me," he told her, aware once again of the overwhelming odor of roses, sharper now that the petals were crushed.

"Hardly flattery," she said, moving nearer to him. "You have brought me such pleasure." Her languor was only partly feigned; over the last few days she had not got much sleep.

He did not speak at first. The turmoil, which he had been able to forget for those brief moments they were linked, returned redoubled. "Oh, God," he whispered, bringing his hand to cover his eyes.

"You need not confess quite yet," Joivita chided him lightly. "I wish you would stay, Sier Valence. Who knows, you might have more to confess in an hour or so."

"Then be grateful that I will not stay," he said rather bluntly. "I have obligations tonight." He had been assigned to keep vigil in the chapel from midnight matins to matins-and-lauds; it was a duty every Hospitaler had, and it served both to guard the chapel from possible enemies as well as to provide constant entry to those in need.

"And you will offer up your sins?" she giggled. "What would you do if you ever had a real sin upon your soul—not lust and fleshly weakness, for that is every man's fate—but a true sin, a dark sin: murder or treason or heresy."

"With God's aid, I never will." He blessed himself as he stood, scattering roseleaves in all directions. "My clothes?"

"My slaves will bring them," she said quietly. "I wish you would stay." The plaintive note in her voice almost persuaded him to accept her offer; only the realization that he might be late to his post if he remained with her gave him the impetus to leave.

"I must go," he said, bending down to kiss her.

"Ask your infirmarist for a salve for your face," she recommended as he drew away from her. "The mark is as bad as a scar. And have your squire take more care with your armor."

"Yes, my tribuness," he said as she reached for a bell to summon her slaves.

Once she had given her orders, she lay back, letting the petals run through her fingers as she played with them. "When will you return, Sier Valence? Will you tell me?"

"I… I will send you word. There are more pilgrims now, because of the Crusades. More Christians are coming in the hope of seeing Jerusalem and praying at the Holy Sepulcher. We Hospitalers are sworn to protect them and so I am not able to… to set my time as I used to." He looked up as one of the slaves came through the door, Rainaut's clothes over his arm, his solers in his hand. Rainaut took them as the slave bowed to him. "I have heard that one of the debauched Roman Caesars once suffocated his enemies in a shower of rosepetals," he remarked as he began to dress.

"If one must die, better that way than many another," said Joivita flippantly. "Rosepetals. How many does it take to smother a person, I wonder?"

Prev Next
Romance | Vampires | Fantasy | Billionaire | Werewolves | Zombies