Crusader's Torch Page 24


By the hand of the scribe Cortise in the funda of Tyre on the 10th day of October in the Lord's Year 1190.

- 13 -

All of the south side of Hamal Khouri's estate was given over to formal gardens, linked by inlaid walkways and narrow, pebbled paths, with fountains cooling the air. Those flowers that bloomed at night glistened at the touch of the moon and the call of birds made music of the darkness.

"You were most gracious to accept my invitation," said Khouri to Olivia as he walked beside her down the widest of the garden's paths. "In spite of your escort's misgivings."

"His misgivings do not concern me," Olivia said, politely but with enough coolness to stop casual inquiry; she was hoping not to be lured into a conversation about Rainaut.

Khouri fingered his beard. "Strange. I observed you both closely and I was under the impression that there was a… a closeness between you."

Reluctantly Olivia gave a sad laugh. "There is; of a sort." She fell silent as a nightingale began its plaintive song.

For a little time Khouri listened and smiled. "What I told you was the truth, you know. You could find no other lodging in the city. There truly is no room for travelers in Sidon just now. It was not a convenient fiction to bring you to this house."

"Would you have offered this hospitality if only the knights had come?" Olivia countered, starting to enjoy the game.

"Of course not," he said. "It would not be correct to do it, for our religions are at war. But then, if there had been two knights only, there is lodging of a sort for them, and they would have to be content with it. Knights may command a pallet in any church in Sidon, or take over a monk's cell. You are another matter." He stared at her, eager anticipation in his large brown eyes.

"Suppose they had escorted a churchman—" Olivia ventured, watching Khouri's face from the corner of her eye.

"It would not have been proper to have him in my house, for either of us." He favored her with an appreciative smile. "And if there had been another woman, it would have depended on my interest. Interest is everything, is it not? Sadly, I do not find most women interesting beyond certain very basic limits."

"But you think me interesting," Olivia said. "Why is that?"

"Ah, if I were to tell you that, you would know too much and would have power over me." He hooked his thumb in his wide belt as he went on. "Most women are creatures of the flesh, which is both superb and unfortunate. Allah endowed them to be creatures of the flesh. While I am fascinated by your body, you are something more."

"Oh?" She was more cautious than flirtatious as she asked this, and she no longer listened to the song of the nightingale.

"You are a woman of some education. I have known few women who were given to study, and most of them chose it because there were no men or children to occupy their thoughts, or because like certain foolish Christian virgins, they had run away from their destinies. This is puzzling in you. There are other Christian women who have the inclination to learn, once the joys of love and children are over. You are a beautiful woman. True, you are not young, but there are compensations that come with age, such as skill and expertise." He moved a step nearer to her. "And you long for that blue-eyed Hospitaler, and he for you, and you remain apart, which is by far the most puzzling part of all."

"It has puzzled me, as well, from time to time," Olivia said, her tone light but not encouraging. She knew that Khouri was using her own longings to draw her to him, yet she could not bring herself to abandon the game. She let her thoughts drift.

"A baffling thing," Khouri went on, "when there is no reason that you cannot take one another as you wish."

"Apparently we cannot do so," Olivia said, becoming withdrawn. "What does it matter?"

"I am a student of the world, good Roman widow, and I have seen how men use the world to their ends. I do not see how this refusal is of use." He smiled swiftly and there was a glint of white in his face.

"I do not either," Olivia admitted. How much she wished it were Rainaut with her in the garden, speaking to her in that gentle, caressing tone. "It distresses me." That was blunt enough, she thought, to make it apparent that she would prefer to discuss something else.

Khouri touched her arm, running two fingers lightly from her shoulder to her wrist. "How do you want Sier Valence to treat you, Roman woman?"

Olivia started to draw back. "That is nothing to you."

"But it is something to you," Khouri said with unexpected kindness. "You burn and there is no help for it; since you have no recourse to what you want, take what I offer you. I will not compromise you to your knight." He stroked her neck, letting his hand drift down the front of her bliaud, over the curve of her breast, along her waist and hip.

Why not? Olivia asked herself. For too long she had taken her pleasure with unknowing men, visiting them in dreams that were as deliriously sweet as they were forbidden. It had been the sensible thing to do, she knew, and had been sufficient for her particular needs. But her desires were unmet and her deeper hunger remained. "I do not care for you, Hamal Khouri."

"You care for Sier Valence Rainaut," he agreed. "You have made him the brightest star in the sky. Tell me the things you want from him, and I will do them. You and I will both benefit." His voice was gentle and persuasive. "If he is fool enough to turn away from you, I am not, and I will show my gratitude." He brushed his lips over her cheek. "Tell me you agree, Roman widow."

Olivia stepped back from him. "You do not know what I want. You tell me you will do as I request, but you do not know what I want." It was all the warning she was prepared to give.

"I will find out," said Khouri in an unperturbed way. "Roman widow, you are not like my wives, you are not like my three concubines, for you are not my servant or my slave." He reached out and took her hand in his. "You are a stranger to me, and I to you. There are times it is best this way."

"And this is one of those times?" Olivia suggested, her manner suddenly blunt. "And why is that?"

"You mistake me," said Khouri, not releasing her hand. "I mean only that we do not have access to each other, and that in a short time, no matter what we may or may not do, we will part, and that will be the end of it." He raised her hand to his lips and kissed the opened palm. "Consider this as a kindness of strangers."

"The kindness of strangers?" she echoed. "Because you desire me?" She had not refused such offers in the past; with Rainaut so near, her feelings were confused, for she knew who it was she yearned for and could not have.

"Of course because I desire you," said Khouri. "I desire you for pleasure and variety and many other things; I do not desire you forever, which is another matter entirely. I have what satisfies and contents me. You are… you would not bring me contentment, would you?"

"I don't know," she answered carefully.

Khouri smiled. "How appropriate an answer. You are skilled, Roman widow. I wager you gave your Roman husband much cause for grief."

Olivia's features hardened. "I hope I did," she said, the glint in her eyes like steel.

"Ah?" Khouri had been about to touch her, but his hand withdrew and he looked at her more closely. "How is this?"

"My husband," she said with deliberate bluntness, "had perverted tastes."

"And he let you know it?" Khouri sounded legitimately shocked. "A man may require variety from time to time. A boy or a different woman, or however Allah has formed him; this is not to be displayed for wives, however." He touched her hand and found it clenched and cold.

"Apparently my husband did not know that. His perversion was to see me violated." She broke away from him and moved away down the arabesque patterns of the path. It startled her to feel the intensity of her reaction: Cornelius Justus Sillius had died over a thousand years ago, yet the memories of his use of her still had the power to distress her. She came to one of the fountains and stopped, staring down at where the moonlight turned the splashing water to the brightness of diamonds, letting the music and the beauty of it calm her.

A short while later, Hamal Khouri strolled up to her. "I did not mean to offend you, Roman widow, or to cause you unhappiness." He remained three or four steps away from her. "It was not my intention to—"

"I know," said Olivia quickly. "And there is no excuse for my behavior." She inclined her head, not looking at him directly but watching him closely.

He remained silent. "I trust you will pardon my lapse, but I hope that you found aid then."

In spite of herself, Olivia smiled. "Oh, yes. I found aid." Unbidden, Sanct' Germain's well-loved features formed in her mind. Where was he now? she wondered. It had been more than thirty years since she last saw him, but the sense of him was as strong now as then, as it had been since that first time she spoke to him, when Nero was Caesar. "His eyes are like no others; very, very dark, almost black, like slates at night."

Khouri moved one step nearer. "Like slates?"

Olivia turned toward him. "Yes. You know—of a blue so dark it is black." She took his hand. "Not like yours, Khouri, which are darker than all wood but ebony. Your eyes are brown at its darkest; his are blue at its darkest."

"And this slate-eyed man was your aid?" Khouri reached out and pulled the wisp of a veil from her hair.

"He saved me," Olivia said. "He taught me to"—she laughed—"to… appreciate life." She regarded Khouri, thinking of Sanct' Germain, and all he had showed her down the centuries. To appreciate life was one of Sanct' Germain's phrases, elegant and equivocal. She had no doubt what he would advise her to do now, if she could ask him.

Khouri was enthralled by her. "How mercurial you are," he exclaimed. "Al zoqh, which influences all other elements, which you call the celestial mercury." He let his hand rest on her shoulder. "Did your rescuer recognize that in you?"

"Better than anyone before or since," she replied seriously, letting her long-denied hunger stir.

"And yet you wish for Sier Valence Rainaut," mused Khouri, fingering the neck of her bliaud. "It is written that the heat of the desert burns less than the passion of women."

She met his eyes. "You may lie with me three times; no more, if we suit one another the first time."

Khouri's face grew deeply intent. "Three times."

"No more," Olivia insisted. "I am not a foolish woman who squanders herself." There was another, more compelling reason, that she would never tell him.

"You changed your mind quickly," he said as he stroked her body through her clothes. "Perhaps you will change again."

"If you suit me and I you, now and two more times I will lie with you. My word on it." She caught both his hands in hers. "My word on it." She waited until he nodded, then she leaned forward and kissed him.

"Surely only Allah is great," whispered Khouri when they moved apart. "You are the fairest moon, the brightest jewel, the most potent perfume. Show me your body, that I may make it my idol for the night."

Olivia loosened the lacings of her bliaud then slithered it down off her shoulders and over her hips. She did not make the error of moving too quickly; each tantalizing motion worked on Khouri more compellingly than the smoke from the waterpipe he used every evening. "Do we remain in the garden, Hamal Khouri?"

He stared at her, devouring her with his eyes. When he spoke, he was breathless. "There is a door. That way."

She bent and scooped up her discarded clothes, only to have him take them from her. "I will need them later."

"My slaves will tend to them," he said. "Come." He had her by the wrist. "The door."

"I have done as you asked; now you will do as I ask," Olivia countered, as curious as she was desiring of him. "I am not chattle."

He stopped at once. "No, you are not," he said, releasing her. "Tell me, then, what you wish of me."

Olivia was mildly surprised at how tractable Khouri had proven to be. She stood staring at him. "It has been a long time since a man has taken pleasure to rouse me."

"Allah has made men fools, O Flower Filled with Nectar." He spoke this endearment in a deeper tone than he had used before. As he said it, he pulled her to him.

Olivia kissed him again, then half-turned and started toward the door Khouri had indicated. Leading him was no difficulty; he moved after her as if bound to her with thongs. As she stepped over the threshold into the incense-sweetened chamber, Olivia at last bent and took the solers off her feet.

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