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BLACK LION'S BRIDE
Warrior Series Book 2
Sebastian of Montborne is a warrior lord on crusade in the Holy Land when he meets his match in Zahirah, an exotic beauty who is as dangerous as she is bewitching. If he loses his heart to her, it might well cost him his life.

 

. . . Prologue . . .

Ascalon, in the Kingdom of Jerusalem
May, 1192

Quiet and moonless, the night stretched out over the desert like thick black velvet, a cloak of complicity for the slim figure that moved with cat-like grace along the maze of narrow alleyways crisscrossing the heart of Ascalon's slumbering city. Garbed in a form-fitting tunic and hose of ebony silk, head and face masked likewise save for the eyes, it seemed as though night itself had sprouted legs to steal through the war-ravaged, abandoned marketplace.

The figure's pace was brisk but cautious as it rounded the corner of an ancient mosque then continued past a row of merchants' buildings and down another twisting avenue, each step lighting soundlessly on the cobbles and hard-packed sand of the street, the lithe limbs showing no sign of fatigue or uncertainty. The athletic form and flawless stealth indicated none of the strain that yet lingered from the week-long journey made on foot from the mountain fortress of Masyaf--a journey that had led here, to the desert port of Ascalon.

To what would be a final glory or an ignoble end.

For it was here that the leader of the Frankish infidels, Richard Coeur de Lion, had made his camp, and it was here that the savage king would breathe his last. He had offended many powerful leaders since coming to the Holy Land; there was no telling which of them might have paid to see him eliminated. And to the agent sent out to see the deed was done, the fida'i who now crept into position along the city's steep wall to observe the royal pavilion, it mattered not who had bought this death. Like Conrad of Montferrat a fortnight past, Richard of England would soon feel the lethal bite of an Assassin's dagger.

Although the hour was easily closer to dawn than dusk, the king did not sleep. Camped on the plain among the other soldiers, Coeur de Lion's large tent glowed from within, the flicker of a single candle throwing shadows against the striped silk walls, betraying that fact that its occupant was alone, his bulky shoulders hunched over his desk in thoughtful concentration. As if to mock the very notion of danger, no guards stood sentry outside, nor in the immediate area. Richard's fearless arrogance was widely accepted; tonight it would spell his doom.

With no time to waste, the fida'i sent a prayer to Allah then reached down to withdraw a virgin dagger crafted especially for this occasion. The curved blade slipped out of its sheath as silently as the footsteps that now carried the Assassin to within a few paces of the king's pavilion. Suddenly, from somewhere in the distance, a dog began to bark. Then the deep rumble of men's voices carried through the night, their Frankish words serious-sounding, but too low to be understood. Two knights had entered the camp from the opposite end, their broad shouldered outlines barely visible in the dark, their heavy boots crunching in the rubble that littered the ground as they made their way toward Coeur de Lion's tent.

Concealed in the gloomy darkness, the Assassin watched, measuring the distance between victory and defeat, as King Richard lifted his head then started to rise from his chair. There was time enough to strike before the knights reached him. Self-preservation was of no concern; martyrdom was the Assassin's reward. But even more compelling than the promise of awaiting Paradise was the hope that this feat, might at last win the approval of Rashid al-Din Sinan.

Feared by most as the mysterious Old Man of The Mountain, King of the Assassins, to the fida'i sent to Ascalon on this mission, Sinan was better known simply as 'Father.' It was his name, not Allah's, that the Assassin whispered before advancing toward the tent that enveloped Coeur de Lion's unarmed silhouette.

~ * ~

"I dinna suppose the king bothered to explain the urgency of this midnight summons, did he?"

Sebastian, Earl of Montborne, and, more recently, officer to King Richard of England in the war against the Muslim infidels, gave a shrug to the soldier walking at his side. "The king is awake and he wishes to have reports of his troops. What more explanation is needed?"

"Ach," grunted his companion, a large Scotsman from the highlands of that wild northern region. "I might have known better than to complain to you, my friend. You and Lionheart seem to forget that we mere mortals require such things as food and rest to gird us for the next day's battle."

Sebastian chuckled. "And here all these months you've been trying to convince me that the Scots' blood ran thicker than the English. I wonder what your bonny bride would say to hear you now, bemoaning the loss of a few hours' sleep?"

"Aye, my sweet Mary," sighed the Scot. "She would doubtless give me a pretty scowl and say, 'James Malcolm Logan, I told you you were mad to leave me to chase glory in that accursed place. Now get your fool's arse back home where you belong before I--"

A movement in the distant darkness caught Sebastian's eye. He stopped walking, silencing his friend with a slight lift of his hand. "Over there," he said when Logan, too, paused. He kept his voice to no more than a whisper. "Something moved behind that row of tents."

Without the moon to offer light to the camp, it was difficult to see anything beyond the pale shapes of the soldiers' tents and the dark, rising swell of Ascalon's crumbling city wall in the immediate background.

Beside him, Logan was peering into the dark and shaking his head. "I see nothing."

"No," Sebastian insisted, certain he was right by the sudden prickle of rising hairs at the back of his neck. "Something--someone--is out there."

And then there was another shift of the darkness up ahead as a slender figure seemed to materialize from out of the gloom. Clad in black from head to toe, the intruder hunched low, creeping toward the center of camp with unmistakable purpose. Sebastian did not have to see the dagger that curved out of one fist like a deadly steel talon to understand what this intruder was . . .

Assassin.

"Blood of Christ!" Sebastian drew his sword and lunged forward. "The king, Logan! Go to the king!"

While the Scotsman raced for the candlelit glow of Richard's pavilion, Sebastian's boots chewed up the space of earth between him and the Syrian agent of death. In the camp, some of the other soldiers had begun to rouse. They tumbled out of their tents and grabbed up weapons, alerted to the situation by Sebastian's shout of alarm.

The ruckus must have taken the assassin aback, for he paused suddenly as if to assess the pending threat of capture. The hesitation proved costly. Sebastian headed him off and was fast on his heels as the would-be assailant turned and ran for the open city gate. If he let him escape to the labyrinth of Ascalon's streets and alleyways, Sebastian knew he would never find him.

The assassin was slight of form, but quick. Sebastian was close enough that he could have cut him down with his sword at least twice, but the agile little bastard dodged away each time, scrambling out of his path like a hare fleeing a hound. The assassin had nearly reached the freedom of Ascalon's arched gate when he suddenly lost his footing, slipping in a patch of loose gravel. One leg skidded from beneath him and he started to fall. Sebastian hurled himself forward, reaching out with his free hand to grab the assassin's flailing arm.

"Uh--no!" he shrieked, the thready voice pitched higher than Sebastian might have expected.

A stripling youth, then, sent down from the mountains to kill a king? It seemed a ridiculous notion, but Sebastian had no time to consider it further.

Without warning the assassin spun on him, and, in pure speed of motion, he hit Sebastian in the side. The blow was not the hardest he had ever taken, but it was swift enough to knock all the wind from his lungs. He lost his grasp on the assassin's arm and the lad broke away in a run. Sebastian followed, but quickly found he could not keep pace. His feet began to drag beneath him; his sword became a weight he could scarcely hold. He took a couple more steps, his boots scuffing in the sand as the assassin slipped around the corner of the city gate and disappeared.

At his back, Sebastian heard the clank of weapons and the heavy beat of footsteps as a company of soldiers jogged up behind him. He had not realized he'd stopped moving until he felt a hand come to rest on his shoulder.

"Are you all right, Sir? " one of the crusaders asked.

Sebastian nodded his head and pivoted toward his men, trying not to let the effort that small movement took show in his face. "Lost my . . . breath." Impatiently, he waved off the assisting hand one of the knights offered him, frustrated that he had let the assassin get away. "The bastard hit me, and I lost my breath. Leave me alone. I'll be fine."

A dozen guards stared at him in mute stupefaction, wide-eyed and astonished beyond words.

"Jesus," a young soldier managed to gasp.

Sebastian looked down to where their gazes were rooted, and acknowledged the source of their concern with a grim laugh. At his waist, a large pool of blood soaked through the fabric of his tunic and down onto his hose, seeping out of him from a wound at his side. The little whoreson had stabbed him--quite efficiently, from the looks of it.

It was no wonder the men gaped at him as if he were a ghost. In a few more hours, he likely would be.

 

. . . Chapter One . . .

Three weeks later

"You know, my friend, you might have saved the king and everyone else a great deal of effort and worry had you simply said you were determined to kill yourself one way or another." Outfitted in chain mail armor from a morning spent in training, James Logan strode up to where Sebastian stood at the top of a wooden ladder, his bare back baking in the midday desert sun as he set a large brick into place on the partially reconstructed city wall. "A thousand able men employed to rebuild Ascalon's defenses, yet here you are, the king's right arm, half-dead but a fortnight past and out here working as hard as any man. You must have been drained of all good sense along with the blood you lost in camp last month."

With an exhaled curse that brought a twinge of pain from the healing wound at his side, Sebastian pivoted his head to look down at Logan. "I didn't come to Palestine to die," he said as he spread some mortar onto the wall with his trowel and reached for another brick. "No more than I came here to sit idle in a sultan's confiscated palace, supervising repairs to a city that will likely be razed by Saladin before we lay the last brick."

Logan chuckled as he positioned himself near the base of the ladder, leaning his shoulder against the stone wall and grinning up at Sebastian from under arched chestnut-colored brows. "The king had to know the Black Lion of England would bristle at the notion of being caged--even behind gilded bars. Like it or nay, my friend, those were his orders when he left to march on Darum."

"I don't like it," Sebastian confirmed in a growl. "I came here to fight. As it seems I am unable to do that at present, I will at least make myself useful. Why don't you do likewise and pass me another bucket of mortar while you're down there?" He scooped out the last of the thick clay muck, then dropped the empty vessel into the Scot's waiting hands. "In any event, I mean to return to campaign as soon as the king is back from Darum. After nearly a month of inactivity here in Ascalon, I expect I can tolerate another couple of days."

"Then you haven't heard?" At Sebastian's answering frown, Logan blew out a sigh. "Richard has decided to delay his return. He goes to the Valley of the Wells, to seize a castle held by one of Saladin's emirs. I learned of it myself just this morning. Seems one of the men got the news from a supply ship that met the king down the coast a few days ago."

Sebastian cursed roundly. "Has he gone mad?" Ignoring the stares of several workers who turned their heads in his direction, he threw his muddy trowel to the ground, then came down off his ladder to confer with his lieutenant. "We should be saving our energies for Jerusalem, not squandering our few remaining troops on more petty raids and caravan robberies."

Logan shrugged. "You'll get no argument out of me. But with so much wealth to be gained from plunder, mayhap Richard has forgotten that his reason for coming to Palestine was to liberate Jerusalem from the infidels."

"He also forgets that his arrogance is winning him no esteem," Sebastian said, retrieving his tunic from the ladder rung he had draped it over earlier that morning. He shrugged into the airy white linen shirt, too fast, for in his haste, a jolt of renewed pain sliced through him. If he ever caught the devil who lanced him open that night, he would take great pleasure in returning the favor. Slowly. "The king is making powerful enemies on both sides of this war," he continued, slanting Logan a confidential glance. "At least one of those enemies means to see him dead."

"'Twas Richard's opinion the attack that night was an isolated incident--a crazed Muslim acting on his own volition, was his guess. He doesn'a believe he's in any specific danger."

Sebastian scoffed. "Neither did Conrad of Montferrat until the night two assassins, dressed as monks, accosted him on the street and stuck their daggers in his heart." He picked up his sword and baldric and began to buckle the wide leather belt around his waist.

Frustrated from a combination of heat, thirst, and now this news of the king's latest military whim, Sebastian abandoned his work and started for the well at the center of the city square. Logan fell in behind him. "'Tis rumored that Conrad's murder was bought with Richard's coin. Leastwise, that was the tale the assassins told upon their capture."

"A tale, all right," Sebastian replied. "Conrad and Richard were hardly enamored of each other, but they had finally come to terms. I was there when the king decided that Conrad was to be his replacement in Palestine should affairs in England call him home before Jerusalem was secured. He's gained nothing with Conrad's death, save the added knowledge that the crusade's success or failure now rests solely on him."

"Aye, but I wager the infidels found much cause to celebrate, having one less Christian leader to contend with," Logan suggested wryly. He pitched his voice low as he and Sebastian neared the crowded square. "You don't suspect Saladin's had a hand in any of this, do you? Could he have conspired with the Old Man of The Mountain to see both Conrad and Richard eliminated?"

Sebastian considered the idea for a moment, his attention focused on the throng of English soldiers and turbaned Syrian laborers taking rest and refreshment at the well. "Assassination seems too cowardly a tactic for a man of Saladin's honor," he answered, then shook his head. "However, the sultan has been pushed into a corner many times, and if we are to start counting King Richard's enemies, I warrant no one can be above suspicion."

At the officers' approach, a young boy hopped down from the ledge of the well where he had been seated, serving water to the other men. He filled two cups from the spring-fed reservoir, then rushed forth to offer them to Sebastian and Logan, his smile eager, dark eyes shining. Halfway across the small distance, he suddenly froze.

A woman's scream rent the air.

It sounded from within the main avenue, a wide street that led to what was once an opulent Syrian palace, and now the nearly deserted headquarters of Richard's high ranking officers. The woman screamed again, shrieking a single word that curdled the blood of both Frank and Saracen alike . . .

"Assassin!"

Sebastian and Logan set off at once, skirting the crowd of dazed workers to reach the mouth of the avenue. "Shut the gates," Sebastian shouted over his shoulder to a knot of soldiers who rushed to join him. "No one leaves the city!"

Boots pounding on the cobble-paved street, he and the Scot raced toward the trouble. They did not have to get within a few yards of the palace to see what had happened. A frantic servant woman stood outside, jabbering hysterically and flailing her hands. At her feet in a pool of blood lay a Christian knight, one of the guards who had been posted at the palace gates when Sebastian left that morning to relieve his boredom by working on the city wall. The man's throat had been slashed--a savage attack delivered upon him not moments before, for his blood was slick and crimson, and still seeping out of his wound.

"Did you see who did this?" he demanded of the woman, seizing her by the shoulders. She feebly shook her head, then dissolved into another fit of wailing. Sebastian released her, turning his head toward the crowd filling the mouth of the avenue. Several prayers were murmured to Allah, but the majority of onlookers seemed capable only of gaping at the scene in mute shock. "Did anyone see who did this?"

A few heads uselessly shook in denial. Sebastian ground out a curse. He was about to turn away when something--or, rather, someone--in the crowd caught his eye. Enveloped in the knot of stunned spectators was a man of slight, wiry build. He might not have been noticeable amongst the others at all, for he was garbed as any other Syrian laborer: the same long white tunic, the same turban covered his head. But what separated this man in Sebastian's mind was the fact that his gaze was not on the fallen knight . . . but on Sebastian instead.

He stared at him with piercing black eyes, cold eyes, lit with what seemed to be a morbid sort of amusement. Sebastian frowned and started toward him. Was this the same man who attacked him that night in camp--the same assassin who might have killed the king? He could not be sure. But this man had killed the palace guard; Sebastian could see the truth of it in the chilling, almost mocking, gaze peering back at him.

"You, there," he hailed in Arabic. "Come away from the others. I would speak to you."

The man smiled, but did not move to oblige. Several people around him began to back away, as if suddenly sensing there was evil in their midst.

"What is it?" Logan asked when Sebastian's hand went to the hilt of his sword.

"There, in the crowd. That man. Do you see him?" Sebastian started forward, and the grinning Arab took a step back, slipping farther into the throng. "The bastard's going to run."

The words were scarcely out of Sebastian's mouth before the man did precisely as predicted. He gave a taunting chuckle and then he was gone, ducking out of sight, his white-turbaned head blending in with the rest of the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd.

Sebastian lunged into a run, pushing his way through the tangle of stupefied laborers and servants. Logan was at his heels in no time, shouting orders to the handful of English soldiers to block off all exits from the city. A sea of turbans and white tunics spread out in all directions, a blurring expanse of colorless shapes, almost blinding in the intense light of the desert sun. Sebastian waded into the crowd, scanning the area like a meadowland hawk searching for the slightest movement in the reeds. He found what he was looking for near the periphery of the throng. The assassin had paused to catch his breath just beyond the city square. Hands splayed against the side wall of a merchant's home, he threw a glance over his shoulder, then took off once more down a narrow alley.

"This way!" Sebastian called to Logan. "He's heading for the souk."

Ascalon's marketplace would be busy at this time of day, far more populated than the city square with its assemblage of workers. The souk was a veritable hive, churning with activity, as vendors having come to the city to trade food and wares set up shop along the narrow streets. They mingled and argued with villagers and folk from surrounding areas, filling the streets with the din of lively bartering, and the press and stink of hundreds of sweating bodies. Sebastian's elusive quarry might be able to hide among this larger crowd for a short while, but once chased into the enclosed area of the souk, with its maze of winding corridors and dead-end alleys, he was as good as a rat in a trap.

With a furtive look back as if to confirm he was still being followed, the assassin plunged deeper into the marketplace, wending his way past rug makers and silk traders, tipping vendors' carts and shoving women and children aside in his haste to get past.

"The spicer's row. Go. Now!" Sebastian shouted to Logan, his abbreviated command sending the big Scot off to meet him at the intersecting avenue while Sebastian stayed fast on the assassin's heels.

Battle rage pounded in his temples as he leaped over a spilled supply of silk fabrics that had been knocked over in front of him. Sebastian side-stepped a cursing vendor and drew his sword, ignoring the gasps of the commoners as he then ran up onto a row of tables to pass the confusion in the street. The assassin was but a few yards ahead of him now, his flight slowed by the mass of people browsing the market. He pushed his way through them, then skidded to an abrupt halt, for rising before him was a wall of stone that climbed some ten feet from the ground.

A dead end.

The assassin seemed to take the obstacle in stride, showing little concern that he was now all but caught. He chuckled as Sebastian drew near, then he tossed a quick glance to his left and spied a way out of his predicament. A curtain of colorful rugs hung suspended on a rope in the space between two buildings, marking a narrow alleyway that was the only means of escape from the blocked market street.

Sebastian grinned as his quarry lunged and made a mad dash down the cramped corridor, for the path he was on now was another dead end. One that would first wind past the spicer's row, where Logan should be at any moment.

No sooner had the Arab fled past, did the Scotsman emerge to join Sebastian in the chase. Together they covered the space of the slim alley, both swords drawn and at the ready, both men fueled by determination and the thrill of pursuit. They pushed the assassin farther down the corridor, allowing him no room to so much as think of attempting to slip past, forcing him to the eventual end of his run. He reached the wall that sealed off the street, then whirled around to face his pursuers.

"It's over. You've nowhere left to go." Sebastian growled the Arabic words, watching as the assassin looked to the left and right of him, his gaze flicking from the high wall of a building that hemmed him in at the left of the alley, to the baker's shop crowding from the right. Before him, Sebastian and Logan began to advance--small, cautious steps that brought them nearly within striking distance.

The assassin reached down to pull his dagger.

"Don't be a fool," Sebastian warned. "I'll cleave you in two before you free it from the sheath."

The man hesitated, his dark eyes narrowing as though he saw the truth in Sebastian's threat. His lip curled at the corner and then he started to chuckle, a deep, guttural sound. "Frankish pig," he spat in halting, thick-accented English. "Allah curse you all!"

His laughter took on a maniacal tone and Sebastian considered the prospect that the man might be insane--or delirious perhaps, from the powerful drug the assassin sect was rumored to administer to its agents before dispatching them to their deadly tasks. Either way, he was dangerous, and Sebastian was losing his patience with the game. "You're coming with us," he said, and started to close the distance between himself and the wild-eyed Arab.

He had only lifted his foot from the ground--moving not even a half-pace forward--when suddenly the door to the baker's shop creaked open and a young Muslim woman walked out. She was paying no attention to where she was going, a bundle of flat breads and cakes in her arms, her face veiled to just below the eyes. With her gaze downcast as she stepped into the street, she walked unawares . . . directly between Sebastian and the assassin.

"Go back," Sebastian shouted, but it was too late.

The woman screamed as the assassin seized her around the neck and shoulders, hauling her to him. Her baked goods tumbled to the cobbled pavement. She screamed again. Her wide, terror-stricken eyes--extraordinary eyes, the color of silver moonglow--stared at Sebastian from over the edge of her gossamer veil. When she tried to squirm free, the assassin wrenched her tighter against him. The blade of his dagger pressed into the silk that covered her throat.

"Saadni," she cried, her gaze rooted on Sebastian, pleading, desperate. "Help me, please!"

"God damn it," Sebastian grated savagely. "Let her go."

Leering now, the assassin began to creep backward, inching away from Sebastian and Logan, toward freedom. The outlet to the spicer's row was only a few yards away, an easy escape. He held the woman before him as he went, all but daring Sebastian to make an untoward move.

Logan hissed an oath. "We canna get to him so long as the bastard's using her as a shield."

"Think carefully, coward," Sebastian snarled in Arabic, challenging the assassin's intent as he hedged nearer. He did not wish to bring further harm to an innocent bystander, but he was not about to back down now. "You're a dead man no matter what you do. Release the woman and my blade will be swift. Hurt her, and I promise you will suffer a prolonged, painful demise. The choice is yours."

"I leave it to Allah to decide," the assassin replied, his voice deep and rasping as he took the last few steps that separated him from the arched corridor of the alleyway.

"Please," the young woman said in Sebastian's own tongue. That one word compelled him to meet her gaze, even when he knew it would be a mistake to risk taking his eyes off his quarry. "Don't let him hurt me. Please, help me--"

She sucked in her breath when the dagger moved lower, sliding down the length of her throat to press ruthlessly beneath her breasts. Dragging her backward with him, the assassin moved farther into the shade of the covered alley. Try as he might, Sebastian could not tear his gaze away from the woman's. She was exquisite, an olive complected beauty with a mass of glossy raven hair, hidden beneath the modest veil that covered the heads of all respectable Syrian women. He could not see her nose or mouth through the silk that draped her cheeks, but their outlines were delicate, utterly feminine.

And those eyes . . . Sebastian had never seen their like before. Quicksilver. Dazzling. They entranced him, and for a moment, he lost sight of everything else around him.

The assassin took the opportunity suddenly presented. He released his hold on the woman and shoved her, hard. She cried out as she pitched forward in a violent fall. Sebastian's reflexes sent him into a lunge, catching her before she could hit the cobbles. When he looked up less than a heartbeat later, the assassin was halfway down the alley.

"Look after her," Sebastian ordered Logan as he stepped around the shaking young woman and resumed a determined pursuit of his quarry.

This time, the cagey assassin was not so swift. Anger and impatience had given Sebastian a demon's speed that brought him onto the man's heels as they rounded the end of the alley. Easily within arm's length, he thrust out his hand and caught the assassin by the tunic, harshly swinging him down onto the dusty street. He did not hesitate for an instant to make good on his earlier threat; with a swift descent of his sword, he delivered a fatal thrust. Wide-eyed with surprise, the Arab clutched at the blade that protruded from his chest, convulsed, then went utterly still.

Logan was still trying to assist the young woman to her feet when Sebastian cleaned and sheathed his sword, then returned to the other end of the alley. "You got him," the Scot stated more than asked, likely reading the cold fact in Sebastian's gaze. "Was he the one from a few weeks ago, the bastard who would have killed the king?"

Sebastian gave a contemplative shake of his head, recalling the events of that night. The fida'i who had crept into the English camp to kill the king had been slighter of form, youthful. A mere lad, if the shriek he gave when Sebastian caught him was any indication. The man lying dead in the spicer's row was older, wiry built but too substantial, his voice fully mature. They could not be one and the same; Sebastian was certain of it. "What about her?" he asked, glancing toward the young Saracen woman. "Is she hurt?"

"Her ankle was twisted in the fall," Logan answered, supporting her with the strength of his arm. "I dinna think she can walk on it." As if to demonstrate the fact, she tried to take a step and nearly collapsed, sharply sucking in her breath and wincing in pain.

"Go take care of the rubbish I left in the spicer's row. Maybe someone can tell us if they've seen the man before," Sebastian ordered his friend. "I'll look after her."

With Logan's heavy gait pounding down the alleyway, Sebastian crouched before the woman to assess her damage. Lifting the hem of her shalwar, the loose-legged trousers worn by Arab women beneath their long tunics, he began to inspect the fine bones of her ankle. She flinched at his touch, drawing back sharply; no doubt an innocent maid, unused to a man handling her in such a fashion. He glanced up and was struck once more with the sheer beauty staring back at him.

"What is your name?"

"Zahirah," she answered quietly. An exotic name for an exotic woman.

"I'm not going to hurt you, Zahirah. There is no reason to be afraid." She nodded faintly and Sebastian returned his attention to her injured leg. Her skin was light bronze and buttery smooth, warm against his fingers as he carefully probed for signs of breaks or swelling. He could feel neither, only the velvety softness of her bare skin and the delicate formation of her limb. He moved her foot, holding her small, sandaled sole in his palm and pivoting the joint. He applied only the slightest pressure, but still she cried out.

"It's not broken," he said, "but if it pains you so, it should be soaked and wrapped." He released her ankle, then came to stand. "Do you live nearby, Zahirah?"

She gave a faint shake of her head, blinking up at him from beneath heavy black lashes. "I am . . . only visiting for the day."

"Is there someone here in Ascalon who can look after you? A friend, perhaps? A relative?"

Another timid denial. "There is no one, my lord."

Sebastian let out a sigh as he considered his options. There was no one to take her to, no place that he could bring her where she might find help among her own people. And he could not very well leave her standing there in the street, not when he was partly to blame for her misfortune. But the last thing he needed was to be charged with the welfare of an injured young innocent, no matter how comely she was.

As if she sensed his reluctance to assist her further, the young woman lowered her gaze. "My humble thanks for your kindness, my lord. Peace and blessings be upon you." She took a small step away, moving gingerly and biting her lower lip as her slight weight shifted onto her left foot. Her stifled cry was more than Sebastian's chivalry could bear.

"God's bones," he growled, reaching out and scooping her into his arms. "You're coming back to the palace with me."

. . . end excerpt . . .