Crusader's Torch Page 37

"Of course," said Olivia with equal courtesy. "What must we bring for our passage, other than gold?"

"There are no pallets in the hold rooms, they are simply empty rooms. I have very little space to carry extra goods. If you have much you want to transport, you cannot do it on my ship." He slipped his bag of coins into a pocket in his capacious sleeves. "A pillow or two will make your passage easier."

"I will tend to it," said Olivia bluntly. "Sunset, day after tomorrow."

"You and your leman will honor my craft," said Alhim with a hint of ire. "It's so rare that Roman nobility comes aboard." He started to turn away from her, then stopped. "I expect you and your leman to remain out of sight."

"All right," said Olivia, who knew she would not want to move from her place in the little cabin.

"There are other passengers coming on this voyage, and I want no questions asked." He shook his finger at her. "That means that I expect you to be invisible."

"I will tell my leman," she said, hoping she could convince Rainaut that their safety depended on their discretion. "A man as scarred as he is does not want—"

"I don't want to know about his scars," said Alhim. "The lie will do well enough for most, but I know what your leman is, and as long as he keeps away from the rest of us, I will not require that he continue his deception." Olivia started to protest, but Alhim continued. "Your leman could be without all his fingers and toes, or his nose and ears for all of me. You have paid and I have taken your money. We understand each other."

"If you…" She let her words trail away. "We will be here."

"Bring dark colors. I don't want the rest to know who or what is coming aboard." He bowed again and began to make his way down the narrow path that led to the beach.

"Alhim!" Olivia called after him. "If you are not here night after tomorrow, the Templars will learn of it."

"I supposed they might," he called back without turning.

Olivia watched until Alhim was almost to the beach, then she started along the same trail in the opposite direction, toward the ruined tower and the rising stone cliffs beyond. In the bright, enervating sunlight she had to go slowly. At night, or with more of her native earth in the soles of her shoes, she would move quickly and surely along such a path, but with so little protection, she dared not risk any accident or misstep. The last quarter of her walk was the hardest, for she scrambled over tall outcroppings, the crude hand-and-toe-holds cut into the rock tending to crumble from time to time, toward the opening of a cave. She swung around one tall spire-like boulder, and then entered the welcome shadow.

"Olivia?" came Rainaut's voice at once, apprehensive and faintly angry.

"Yes," she answered, going up to him with a tentative smile. "I've done it."

Rainaut turned toward her, his face set under straight brows. The scarlike patch of skin on his face was large and now covered most of the left side of his neck. More of his tawny hair had fallen out, leaving the side of his head above the ear quite bald. "Commendable," he said, doing his best to keep in the deepest shadows.

Her step faltered; she heard wrath in that word, and she came toward him, her hands out to him. "Why are you angry with me?"

"Not you," he said, shying away from her, standing so that she could not see his face. "I am angry with myself." He put his hands over disfigurement. "How could I, as I am? Who would speak with me, as I am?"

Olivia could not respond at once; an emotion compounded of grief, love, and something else, perhaps impatience, perhaps fear, stopped the words in her throat. "That's why I went," she reminded him carefully. "We decided it was best."

"Yes," he said abruptly. "And I haven't changed my mind. But that it should come to this, that I must hide in a cave, like some hunted creature, while you, who I am sworn to protect, must go alone to meet a smuggler—" He slammed the palms of his hands against the walls of the cave, watching his blood stain the stone.

Olivia reached out and stopped him, taking his hands in hers and forcing him to look at her. "It does not matter, Valence," she said. "I have done far worse in the years I've lived, and I have survived. So will you."

"All my hair will fall out, won't it," he said, unwilling to meet her eyes.

"Probably," she said. "And your eyes will redden and you will become more sensitive to light. Most of your skin will be like a scar, white and stretched-looking." She recited these horrors without revulsion. "But I do not love you for your skin, or your hair."

"Why not?" He tried to break free of her without success.

"Beauty is fleeting, if all you see is the skin. Beauty can last all life long if what you see is the soul," Olivia said quietly, thinking that even a life, from her perspective, was fleeting.

"Fine sentiments," he scoffed, his voice breaking.

"No, simply the pragmatic truth." Reluctantly she let go of him. "I wish you would believe me."

Rainaut held his hands across his waist as if he had taken a sword thrust into his vitals. "I am hideous," he howled at her.

"Not to me," she said. "Your face is not handsome now, which is unfortunate. You suffer, which causes me great pain. But that does not change my love for you." She laughed once, sadly. "It also doesn't stop me from wanting to throttle you when you fall into these sulky states."

He was so shocked that he rounded on her. "Sulky? Me?"

"Yes," she said serenely. "From time to time you are sulky." Her hazel eyes warmed. "And when you are, I would be delighted to belabor you with the flat of your sword."

"You would." He sat down, almost at the mouth of the cave, and stared down the slopes toward the distant sea. "Melancholy is one of the cardinal sins."

"Oh how charming," said Olivia ironically. "You've been collecting sins today, is that it?"

"I am a great sinner," he said, the little jollity he had shown fading quickly.

"I think you're showing more stubbornness than anything else. You are determined to be a great sinner, and you will magnify anything you think or do in order to accomplish that goal. It's foolish, Valence." She sat down beside him, letting her feet dangle, her skirts pulled up as far as her knees. "I have known men who were true sinners, and you are not like them."

Rainaut was gazing at the distant horizon, shielding his aching eyes with his hand. "You can leave me, if you like."

"What?" Olivia demanded, truly shocked at his offer. "What do you mean by that?"

"You can seek out another protector, who is whole and clean and who will be able to aid you in your return to Roma. I am more of a liability than anything else. In very little time, I will be nothing less than a noose for you." His blue eyes were somber, his voice steady and low.

Olivia regarded him incredulously. "Is this a noble renunciation or a run for cover?"

Rainaut squinted as he stared out, away from her. "I am not fit company any more. Say what you will, no man can look on me without horror."

"Certainly you were more comely when your skin was as other men's, but what of it? I have known men who were deformed, who were born with stubs in place of arms, with three legs instead of two. I have known men with joints as gnarled as the roots of trees, who have lost legs and arms and ears and faces to war." She thought back to Regius' son, his chest still bleeding sluggishly as he accepted her blood to save him, and his father's wrath. "You are not my lover because you are well-formed and whole, but because you are Rainaut. How often must I tell you that before you believe me?"

He was looking away from her now. "I am not safe to know."

At this Olivia laughed aloud. "Valence Rainaut, I am not safe to know." She put her hands on his shoulders and forced him around to look at her. "Did you believe what I told you, a few days ago, about when and where I was born?"

Rainaut shrugged, squirming a little under her hands, and made a deprecating joke, not answering her question. "It doesn't matter, Olivia."

"Yes, it does, because it is the truth. You know how I love you, and that for me, your blood is you, and your love." She smoothed his sparse hair back from his brow. "Why should a vampire like me be put off because you have an ugly disease?"

"Don't," he snapped.

"What?" she asked, refusing to release him.

"Say you are a vampire." He directed his stare at her. "It could bring you trouble, to say such things."

"It has certainly done so in the past," said Olivia, sensing his attempts to seal himself off from her. With a sigh she let go of his shoulders. "But the fact remains, I am a vampire, and have been since I woke in my tomb more than a millennium and a century ago." She once again looked out to sea.

"I know what you're doing," Rainaut said after a while.

"Do you?"

"You are trying to keep me from melancholy, to turn my thoughts away from my sins. You have this fable so that I will not dwell on what has become of me." He tried to smile, but the white skin distorted his efforts to a rictus.

"It's not a fable," said Olivia, beginning to feel very tired. "Why do you think… why do you think I taste your blood when we lie together?"

"To ensure you will not be with child, of course," said Rainaut.

"To what?" Olivia asked, taken aback at his answer. "How would taking blood stop—? Never mind." She tucked her legs under her and leaned against his arm. "I had a child, once, long ago, but it died."

Rainaut glanced over at her. "Truly?"

"Truly," she said, remembering the peculiar expression in Justus' eyes when the infant was made ready for burial. "There was just the one, no others."

"But since you are a widow, a child now—" Rainaut persisted.

"That's not possible," said Olivia. "I taste your blood for love of you, and no other reason. There is nourishment in love, Valence, little as you may believe it." She hesitated, then went on. "When we come together, we partake of one another. To taste your blood is part of that. For those like me, it is our only sustenance."

His expression grew bitter. "With such hunger, I suppose that any source will do."

"No." He had started to move away from her, but she held his arm. "No, that is not so, and you will not think it is."

"But you said—" he began only to be interrupted.

"I said that there is nourishment in love. Do you think that any man will give that? Oh, yes, there are ways to rouse a man to dreams of passion, but that is… makeshift. It is fodder, little else. What I need, what I yearn for, is love that gives of itself. You have given me so much, Valence. You have opened your heart to me, and have made a gift of it." She lifted his hand and kissed it.

"Never mind that all this brings dishonor on us both," he said, mocking himself as well as her.

"What dishonor?" Olivia asked sharply. "Where is the dishonor in receiving a heartfelt gift? Where is the dishonor in acknowledging love? If your honor will not tolerate that, it is nothing to seek." She scrambled to her feet and went back into the cave. "Without you, I would be… not dead, but something far worse. By now, I would be lying, unmoving and desiccated, by the sea, assuming I could reach the shore at all after the tarida went down."

"Of course," he said, not believing what she said.

"Or I would be on the floor of the ocean, living but immobile, condemned to remain there, knowing everything, capable of nothing, until the sea and its creatures destroyed my flesh. Without you, without your love, I would be lost." It was easier to say these words with a little distance between them. Olivia hated his sense of resistance; this way she did not have to experience it. "Rainaut, believe me, if you had no love for me, I would know it, and nothing you or I did would make any difference."

Rainaut shook his head slowly several times. "You are a persuasive devil, I'll allow that. You are filled with the deadliest honey." He got up, moving once more into the deep shadows. "Tell me again how my disease is not leprosy, though my skin is white as milk. Tell me again that I am clean, though my eyes turn red and my hair falls out. Tell me, Olivia."

"You taunt me," she said quietly. "But that does not change your love. Nor mine."

Rainaut remained silent for some little time. When he spoke again, it was in a gentler voice. "Will you miss me?"

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