Crusader's Torch Page 25

"Ah." Khouri stood in the doorway, waiting until she had straightened up. "You are delight to all the senses, Roman widow. How is that, when so many others are not?"

"I am a Roman," Olivia reminded him. "I bathe."

Khouri shook his head. "That is not the whole of it. But, yes, I will allow that it is some of it, certainly." Now that they were in the chamber—which was hardly more than an alcove off the garden—Khouri was less pressing. He approached Olivia slowly but with complete confidence. "It is not your love I am seeking; I want your rapture."

"Then commence your search," she suggested, sinking back into the enormous mound of pillows and cushions that were the principal furnishings of the room. Sliding into a comfortable sprawl, she looked up at Khouri as he tugged free of the last of his clothes. How good it was to enjoy this man! For too long she had confined her encounters to those midnight embraces that were remembered by the men who gave them as dreams—or demons. She recognized some of her hesitation with Rainaut stemmed from her own doubts as well as his. It was so reassuring to be able to have this time with Khouri, to play.

Khouri knelt over her, straddling her without touching her. He kissed her quickly, gently, over her face and neck, then to her breasts. As he tongued one nipple, he tweaked the other between his thumb and fingers. He was deft in all he did; he never rushed or prodded, but continued a slow crescendo in their bodies. "My most precious rose," he murmured as his hand slipped down the inside of her thigh. "You will bloom for me; you will open all your petals."

Olivia reveled in the subtle sensations Khouri awakened in her flesh, at the complexity of responses that filled her. From the brush of his beard on her breast to the warmth and weight of his hand resting between her legs, she was entirely aware of him, and she all but moaned with pleasure. Since she had wakened in her tomb, she had known no malady, but under Khouri's touch she trembled as if with palsy, and her skin burned as if kindled by fever. She held a silken pillow to her face to keep from crying out when at last he slid into her.

"My ruby lily," he whispered. "My heart of all treasure, my most cherished slipper, my honeyed rose." He spoke in cadence with his movements. "My glorious scabbard."

Olivia held him, listening to his poetic compliments without attempting the same thing herself. She gave herself over to his expert ministrations, allowing herself to be carried into aspects of her senses she had neglected or ignored for far too long. Gradually she began to caress him, to slide her hand down his back, along his flank, over his legs, feeling his reaction with all her body. As she felt him tense, and his thrusts suddenly became deep and abrupt, she kissed him, at first on the mouth, and then on the neck.

"Well?" he asked her some while later. "You said if I pleased you and you pleased me, there could be… how many was it?" He had pulled a soft blanket of Kashmiri wool over them just before he spoke.

"It was this and two times more," Olivia said, staring up into the darkness.

"Only two?" asked Khouri, teasing and pleading at once.

"Only two," she said. "It is best that way."

"You are a remarkable partner, Roman widow. I have experienced many women, but no one like you." He kissed her softly, affectionately. "Who knows, in time I could come to have a passion for you."

"And what have you now?" She rolled onto her side so that she could look at him.

"A passion for your body, of course," he said, his face momentarily serious. "You are a treasure among women. A pity that you are not a courtesan, for you would own half the world."

There had been a time, three centuries before, when Olivia had been just that, and for twenty desperate years had risked discovery and denouncement while she entertained her lovers. Ultimately she had come to loathe what those years had made of her; since then, she had not considered being a courtesan again. "I have no taste for that," she said.

"And doubtless I am an idiot to say such a thing, after what you told me of your husband." He lowered his head and sighed. "I intended no offense."

Olivia shrugged. "So, there are two more opportunities, if you want them, but only two." She put her fingers to his lips. "No, not yet. Think about your answer."

"Wonderful Roman widow, whether I answer you now or after Allah—certainly His name will be praised forever and ever—has called me to Paradise, it will be no different. Whatever you offer me, be it two or twenty or two hundred million, I will count myself the most fortunate of men." He slipped his arm around her and pulled her to him. "What man disdains such a gift?" Before she could answer, he went on, "That Hospitaler is worse than the fool I thought him. If the fire of your flesh can do so much, what is your passion like?"

Olivia did not answer at once. She touched the place on his neck where her mouth had been. "Passion changes things," she said remotely.

Khouri chuckled. "How careful you are."

She frowned. "You don't understand," she said, turning to look out into the garden shadows and moonlight. "The senses can be… fed."

"As hunger is sated and thirst is slaked," agreed Khouri.

"But passion is more than a feast or a display or… or anything but itself." She made a sudden, impatient gesture. "There is no way of knowing what passion will do."

"And your foolish knight does not seek for it?" Khouri shook his head in disapproval.

"He seeks it, but not in me." Olivia closed her eyes, feeling defeated.

"Then he is not likely to find it," Khouri decided. "He is not willing to lie with you and he will not embrace Islam. He is hopeless."

Olivia stared at the dark garden and sighed.

* * *

Text of a letter from Ithuriel Dar to Niklos Aulirios.

To Niklos Aulirios at the estate Sanza Pare near Roma, the shipowner Ithuriel Dar sends greetings and some news.

I have made inquiry at Tyre and found from the Hospitalers here that your mistress the widow Bondama Atta Olivia Clemens has left this city for Sidon, with authorization to take ship therefor Roma. All inquiry thus far indicates that she is still with her Hospitaler escort in Sidon, since no captain I have spoken with has any knowledge of such a woman taking ship from Sidon. Now that both Phillippe of France and Richard of England are underway, most of the captains agree that space aboard ship will be hard come by for some time, since supplies and materiel are being much increased against the day that the Christians and Islamites meet in battle.

So that we will not lose track of your mistress again, I have left word (and paid several handsome bribes; I include the accounting) at most ports from Ascalon to Attalia, requesting any and all information that might be found about this woman. I am about to leave Caesarea for Sidon, to try to locate her, as soon as the current storm dies enough to take ship, that is.

It may be difficult to get this to you speedily, or to find your mistress with dispatch, for the winter has started out badly, and the storms have not diminished in either frequency or severity. This is fortunate in one sense, in that it means that the French and English Kings cannot travel and thereby commandeer all the boats on the sea, but it also restricts all other sailors as well.

I have the opportunity to meet with the Master of the Hospitalers here in Caesarea, and perhaps he will be able to tell me how best to proceed. Be of good cheer, my Greek friend who is Roman. We will find your mistress and see her returned to your before any harm can come to her. Let me add, too, that your mistress is not without resources, as I have cause to know. As great as our determination is to reach her, so is hers to reach you, and from what I have seen of Bondama Clemens, she is a force to be reckoned with.

Ithuriel Dar

By my own hand, carried by the ship Leocadia, written on the day the Court of Bourgesses in Caesarea declares to be the 22nd day of November, in the Christian year 1190.

- 14 -

It was the third squall in as many days, and in the lavish house of Hamal Khouri, everyone was growing restless. Word had been brought from the harbor that yet another ship had been unable to leave port: in the last month only the small ships of the fishing fleet had ventured onto the sea, and five of them had been lost.

"It is shameful that we must wait this way, and in the house of an Islamite," de Jountuil said to Rainaut as they prepared to spend the morning practicing at swordplay. "It's bad enough that we are not allowed to defend Our Lord more vigorously, but"—he hefted his long, double-handed broadsword and took two experimental swings with it—"to accept hospitality from an Islamite is beyond bearing."

"There is no room for us in Sidon, unless you want to sleep in the stable with the grooms," said Rainaut tightly.

"It would be a change," said de Jountuil. "Are you ready?"

Rainault swung his sword. "I believe so," he answered, taking the crouched posture used to imitate fighting on horseback. He brought his sword up, balancing the flat of the blade against his shoulder. "At your word."

De Jountuil hopped backward, at the same time bringing his sword down and across in a vicious arc. "There!" As he shouted, his weapon clanged off of Rainaut's, which he had brought under and up to intercept de Jountuil's blow.

Both men stepped back, realigned themselves, and took up their stances again. "I am ready," said Rainaut. He flexed his fingers on the hilt and braced his thumb against the quillons.

"And I." This time the two circled each other for a short while before de Jountuil straightened up, his sword raised high and starting to swing directly down.

Rainaut again brought his sword up, and sparks flew where the two blades scraped. He could feel the force of the impact down his arms, across his shoulders and down his back. As he disengaged his sword, he asked, "Again?"

"Of course," said de Jountuil, panting a little. He blotted his forehead against his leather-covered arm. "Take your place." As he brought his sword up to the ready, de Jountuil asked, "Your Roman widow seems to be making the most of our stay here, doesn't she?"

Rainaut hesitated, thrown off balance by the question. "How do you mean that?"

"How do you think?" countered de Jountuil. "She amuses herself and our host. It probably would not pain her if we were forced to remain here all winter." He had found a position that put more sun into Rainaut's eyes than his own; he set his feet and crouched.

"That's a pernicious lie," Rainaut said, trying to make his tone light and bantering, but without success.

"Is it? She has been with him at night three times." He had to slide backward as Rainaut lunged. ''I have watched, Rainaut. I know what I have seen."

"And what is that?" His eyes were narrow and his voice taut with anger; he felt the icy fist gather under his belt. "What have you seen?"

"I've seen… For God's Fish, Rainaut!" He ducked as Rainaut's blade clove the air a hand's-breadth above his head.

"Tell me." The blade was moving again, and this time de Jountuil moved back several paces.

"I saw Bondama Clemens in the company of our Islamite host. You know what they are with women. All the world, knows that they are perverted and hedonistic. They keep their own women prisoners so that they may treat them as they wish." He lowered the point of his sword and let the weapon fall. "Khouri says he admires Bondama Clemens' mind. And he has wives and concubines enough to keep any man satisfied. But they have been alone together at night upon three occasions. Wait and watch with me, and you'll see I am right in my suspicions."

Rainaut flung his sword away from him, so that it crashed into the far wall and clanged to the floor. "May every demon in Hell consume her entrails if you tell me the truth," he vowed.

"Fine, fine," de Jountuil said at once. "Wish all of them happy." He cocked his head to the side. "We don't owe her escort if she is nothing more than a harlot."

"She's not a harlot!" Rainaut's face darkened.

"All right," de Jountuil agreed at once. "Perhaps a harlot, perhaps a courtesan, perhaps only one of those widows who from time to time gets an itch. Whatever the state, unless she is virtuous, she cannot demand our escort."

Rainaut glared at de Jountuil. "You are my fellow-Hospitaler and we are of similar rank; I will not make you accountable to me for what you have said. It is not worthy of either of us that we should come to blows over your jest." He leaned forward. "But so there will be no mistake, I will watch with you, and we will learn together how great your misunderstanding has been."

"If you are so enthralled by her, make her your whore and have done with it," said de Jountuil, making certain that he was out of range of Rainaut's fists.

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