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Reynaud brought his warhorse to a halt and leaned his weary body forwards, scanning the rocky hillside overlooking the River Darro. Below him spread the muddle of flat-roofed houses and open courtyards that made up the Moorish quarter of the city. After twenty years, everything looked smaller than he remembered. He gazed down at the orange groves and almond orchards surrounding the towering stone walls, the whitewashed adobe buildings gleaming in the harsh afternoon sunlight, and felt his gut tighten.
He was home.
He clenched his teeth and deliberately brought his ragged breathing under control. Would he have returned did he not carry a secret message for the Emir Yusef? Perhaps. Granada was the only home he had ever known. But he had long been absent, and God knew he was much changed. Would he be welcomed by the Arab family that had raised him? Would they even recognise him after all these years?
Far below, the muezzin's thin voice rose in the call to evening prayer. The sun swelled into a bloody orange ball and dipped towards the hills in the west, spreading golden light over the rooftops, and Reynaud's chest grew tight. How he had loved this city as a boy, loved the exotic, spicy smells wafting from kitchens, the Jews' crowded bookstalls, the throb and hum of a busy Moorish kingdom. He had even grown to love the muezzin's chant.
He turned the grey stallion on to the sloping path, leaning back in his saddle as the descent steepened. By the time he reached the lightly guarded north gate, darkness shrouded him.
The lone guard waved him through the city walls. The moment he rode through the gate he reined the horse to a stop and sat motionless, listening to the sounds of the place where he had grown up. Lute music drifted from a nearby courtyard, punctuated by the sound of someone singinga woman's voice, low and rich, the words half-Catalan, half-Arabic. He cocked his head, listening, and slowly inhaled the thick sweet scent of orange blossoms.
A pain keen as a lance pierced his heart. Despite his Templar vows, he still ached for the sound of a woman's voice, the comfort of a woman's soft body. He thought he had forgotten loneliness, but beneath his white surcoat he was still a man, was he not?
He shifted uneasily in the high-backed saddle. He had lost something during the long years of fighting, something he could not name. After a time it had mattered not who was responsible for the pile of mangled corpses behind every city gate. Death smelled the same for Christian and Saracen.
A shadow danced against the whitewashed wall. He laid one hand on his sword hilt, studying the silent street of the shoemakers. Someone was following him.
No one could predict how the Arabs of Granada would greet a Christian Templar knight in their midst. A thief would want the gold weighting his saddlebags. Reynaud would kill the man, and that would be that. But if it was not the gold he was after could someone know about the secret message he was carrying?
He stepped the nervous horse into the nearest alley, and when it split in two directions, he took the wider path, then doubled back, threading his way through narrow, twisting streets he only half-remembered.
Behind him, a gate latch clicked. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the scrolled-iron barrier swing open on noiseless hinges, then glimpsed a splash of crimson before an unseen hand slowly pushed the gate closed. The hair on the back of his neck prickled.
He studied the cobbled street. Even the scraping of the cicadas had ceased, and the feeling that someone watched him sent a snake crawling down his spine. He spurred the horse forwards, every nerve alert.
A shrouded figure glided from an alley and Reynaud automatically manoeuvred the stallion to block the man's path. Resting his hand on his sword, he bent forwards.
It was not a man, but a young woman!
He stared down at her. From under the hood of her black cloak she looked back at him with defiance in her eyes.
'What business brings you out this night?' he bit out.
'My own business,' she said calmly from behind her dark face veil. 'And none of yours.' She turned to move away, and he caught a whiff of perfume, a mix of sweet-scented roses and something darker. Musk, perhaps. He drew his sword and blocked her way.
'You should not be out alone. You should be safe in your house.'This was what he had fought for these long years, not only to free Jerusalem from the infidel, but to protect the civilised world. Protect women from the suffering he had seen, the horror of battle and the cruelty of depraved men.
'I do what I wish,' she said with a toss of her head. 'And it is not what you are thinking. You have no right to hold me here.'
He noted the cut and quality of her garments. Not a street woman, then. 'I would see you safely home.'
'You will not,' she replied. 'Who are you to order me about?'
'I am a knight of the Temple of Solomon.'
She peered up at him, focused on the red cross stitched on his white Templar surcoat, then lifted her gaze to his.
'Have you travelled far?'
'From Antioch, in the Holy Land.'
She studied him with widening eyes. 'You must have seen wondrous places on your journey.'
Reynaud blinked at her words. 'Aye,' he said slowly, watching her eyes. 'Great cities and blood-soaked battlefields, where I learned to trust no one.'
'And now you come to Granada to waylay women?'
'Do not insult me!' he snapped.
'Then do not detain me! You have no right.' She pressed her balled-up fist against the flat of his sword and nudged it aside, then moved to step past him.
She spun and pinned him with large grey eyes. 'Do you not mean wait, "if you please"?'
Reynaud swallowed hard. She was insolent. But he was being unchivalrous. 'I beg forgiveness. I have been too long on the battlefield.'
'Ah,' she breathed. 'Still, you are free to travel wherever you wish. I envy you.'
'Then you are but a foolish woman.'
Her frame stiffened. 'That,' she said, 'I am not.'
'Where is your father? Your husband?'
'I have no husband,' she replied quietly. 'And at this hour, my father is sleeping.'
'Does he know what his daughter is about?'
She sucked in a quick breath. 'Ah, no, he does not.'
A sour taste flooded his mouth and he spat to one side. 'He will whip you when he finds out.'
'That he will not. This is Granada. Women here have choices they do not enjoy elsewhere.'
His spine jolted upright. 'Choices? What choices? Women were created to beget children.'
Her eyes flashed. 'You are wrong. Women must' Her hair escaped her head covering and tumbled past her shoulders in a satiny, midnight-dark mass. Still holding his gaze, she slowly drew aside her face veil.
Full, soft-looking lips curved slightly downwards at the corners. Her teeth shone white as pearls against her sun-bronzed skin. An iron crossbolt slammed into his heart. He could not draw breath.
He clenched his jaw. 'Get you gone.'
She raised her chin. 'No man orders me thus. Not even a Templar knight.'
She was small and delicate and her eyes were beautiful. He felt the gnawing of his body's hunger in every muscle and sinew.
As a Christian knight, pledged to celibacy, he avoided women. But as a man God help him, as a man he looked upon her with desire licking at his body.
'Go,' he ordered.
She shot him a long venomous look, whirled and melted into the dark.
Gritting his teeth, Reynaud turned his mount towards the heart of the Moorish sector and the familiar house overlooking the city where he had grown up.
In the rambling palace Reynaud paused behind the latticed entrance to his foster uncle's quarters and tried to steady his heartbeat. Before he could speak, Hassam strode forwards, extending both his hands, and Reynaud was pulled into the older man's embrace.
'Welcome, Nephew! I feared never to see you again.'The older man released him and stepped back. 'You have changed much.'
Reynaud grasped the vizier's arm and held it tight. For a moment he could not speak. 'Uncle,' he managed. 'I have seen much that would age a man.'
Hassam smiled. 'Of that I have no doubt. A man is always anxious to leave his youth behind. Then, when he has outgrown his milk teeth and been blooded in battle, he longs for a return to innocence.' He smiled again, his teeth a flash of white in the lean, sharp-boned face. 'It is the same with all men.'
Reynaud studied his uncle. The spare frame outlined under the emerald silk tunic was still erect and proud, the movements agile, even graceful. Only the touch of silver in the dark hair betrayed Hassam's age. He must be nearly sixty winters. And even though it had been Hassam's preoccupied younger brother who had raised Reynaud as his foster son, Reynaud loved his uncle more than any man he had ever known.
'Come.' Hassam gestured to a low sofa covered with embroidered cushions. 'Sit with me. We have heard nothing of you for these twenty years. And besides,' he confided, 'I have my own reasons for speaking with you alone.'
Reynaud unbuckled his belt and carefully laid the sheathed sword on a carved wooden chest, then settled himself on the couch beside his uncle and waited while he signalled a young slave to bring coffee. 'What reasons?'
Hassam chuckled. 'You were ever direct, Nephew.'
'Your pardon, Uncle. I have not the time to be otherwise.'
'Nor have I.'
Reynaud accepted the tiny cup of fragrant dark liquid the servant proffered and waited until Hassam spoke quietly to the boy and gestured him away.
'I carry a message for Emir Yusef,' he said quietly.
The vizier nodded, cradling his coffee between thumb and forefinger, but he said nothing.
'For your ears only. As a Christian knight, I cannot deliver it in person.'
Reynaud hesitated a split second. 'From the Templar master, Bertrand de Blanquefort, in Acre.'
Hassam's black eyebrows went up, but his face remained expressionless. The dark eyes that met Reynaud's were calculating.
'It is thought, Uncle, that you have Emir Yusef's ear. That you could deliver this message t...