Dark Hunger

Page 9

“This is Miss Reese Carmichael, sent from the city by Will Scarlet,” Rebecca said. “Reese, this is Alain, captain of the garrison.”

“I’ve always envied Will’s eye for beauty, Reese, but never so much as at this moment.” He made the single syllable of her name sound like a symphony as he held out his hand. “I am enchanted, my lady.”

Reese tried to make the handshake brisk, but as soon as their fingers touched his closed around hers, and he breathed in deeply.

“Alain.” Rebecca’s tone grew sharp. “Miss Carmichael has come here at Will’s invitation. She is his guest, and I have assured him that she will be treated with every courtesy while she is here.”

“Naturally.” Slowly the cool hand withdrew from Reese’s, but the tiger eyes kept watching her. “Miss Carmichael, have we met before?”

The chatelaine sighed his name. “Alain, please.”

“It is only that she seems somehow familiar to me.” He smiled at Reese, transforming his lethal charm into amused resignation. “Forgive my poor manners. Welcome to Rosethorn, Miss Carmichael.”

If she could deceive him, she could do the same with the rest of them. “Thank you, my lord. I am very happy to be here.”

“Were you sent to entertain our Italian brothers,” Alain asked, “or do you prefer more civilized lovers?”

Reese gave Rebecca an uncertain glance. “I’m not here to entertain anyone.”

“Alain, we have no Italians here,” the chatelaine said.

“We will as soon as introductions have been made.” He nodded toward the front of the property. “Our lord has sent more than seventy of them from the city to stay with us, and they have just now arrived.”

When he arrived back at Rosethorn, Sylas had first seen to preparing quarters among the garrison’s barracks for the contessa’s cavalieri. He had meant to go from there to see his wife and warn her about their possible visitors, but a call from Will Scarlet confirmed that the Italians were already en route to the estate.

“I’ve only just arrived myself,” Sylas told the seneschal. “I will need more time.”

“You have none,” Will said bluntly. “I am sorry, Sylas, but our lord is not thinking clearly tonight, and I have my hands full with him. Do what you can.”

Sylas immediately called for his senior men, relayed the situation, and issued orders. “We are to regard these Italians as guests, but I want the patrols doubled and the interior guards to stand watch day and night.”

“You expect some trouble from them?” Bergen asked.

“No. Their mistress is an old friend of the master’s.” Sylas looked around him at the sober faces of his best warriors. “Regardless, I expect us to be ready for anything.”

Word came over the radio a few minutes later from the perimeter guards that several large, chartered passenger vehicles had stopped just beyond the first gate, and that Kyn males walking in presentation formation were approaching the estate. Sylas summoned an equal number from the garrison, ordered them to arm themselves, and sent them to stand ready in the lower courtyard.

The castellan remained behind long enough to call his wife over the radio. “Rebecca, where are you?”

“I am in Ireland, of course,” she called back. “I think I shall visit the high lord and ask him how I might rid myself of a husband too busy to properly greet me when he comes home.”

Sylas chuckled. “Forgive me, my lady; ’twas something of an emergency. Have you word of our visitors?”

“Yes, Alain brought word to me and my ladies. We should have the main hall ready in a few moments. Did you miss me?”

“Aye.” He smiled. “I will show you how much later.” He remembered what she had said earlier. “Is that mortal—Will’s friend—with you? She will have to go.”

“I left her with Alain,” Rebecca said. “She needed but a few minutes to take photographs of the workrooms, and then he will escort her from the stronghold.”

Having a strange mortal under their roof at the same time strange Kyn were arriving made Sylas uneasy. Still, he had no time to chase after Reese Carmichael, and Alain would assure that she came to no harm. “Very well. I will see you shortly in the hall.”

Not for the first time, Sylas was glad of the work he had done to disguise Rosethorn’s fortifications from the ever-curious eyes of the mortal world. Flower beds and turf covered the steep inclines of the curtain walls’ plinth bases. Trees planted along the inside of the lower courtyard cast shade over the subtle crenellations and hoardings where the Kyn on perimeter patrol stood watch. The plaster veneer of the keep, which had been designed to appear as a large contemporary manor house, concealed five-meter-thick masonry walls.

The decorative casings above the large picture windows housed rolls of steel slats that at the push of a button could be dropped down to form an impenetrable barrier over the glass panes; dual wooden shutters on hidden tracks flanking the windows covered tall, narrow arrow loops. The garages, gardening sheds, generator, and pump houses were actually smaller versions of the old gate towers and were manned by armed guards around the clock. Even the collapsible ramps leading from the lower bailey up to the shield walls had been paved with granite cobblestone and lined with flowering shrubs to appear to the ignorant eye as nothing more than pleasant, well-landscaped walkways.

Robin had disagreed with his castellan over the need for one last, outmost barrier against invasion. While the modern world had developed formidable means and firepower since the age of castles, water still presented a sizable and difficult obstacle. The suzerain, however, had maintained that nothing could adequately conceal or explain away a wide, water-filled trench encircling the entire property. Sylas had to be content with a series of retention ponds and ditches for which he fashioned collapsible borders and a massive underground system of supply pipes. Should the stronghold come under attack, he could flip a switch and flood the ditches within minutes, creating an almost instantaneous moat.

Knowing the stronghold was well guarded did not relieve all of Sylas’s misgivings about their unexpected visitors. If the Brethren had tracked the Italians after they had fled Venice, they might have followed them across the sea to America. Hopefully their mistress had been too clever to lead their mutual enemy directly to Robin of Locksley’s door.

Sylas led his personal escort down the ramp to where the Italians were waiting. Their leader, a tall warrior whose dark face gave away none of his thoughts, stepped forward and performed a respectful bow.

“I am Saetta, maréchal to Contessa Salvatora Borgiana, sent here by leave of your suzerain, Robin of Locksley.” He straightened and met Sylas’s gaze with the steadiness of an experienced leader. “We are grateful for the sanctuary you provide.”

As castellan, Sylas had considerably more rank than Saetta, whose position in Italy was roughly equal to that of a head groom or stablemaster. Under any other circumstances it would be an insult to have such a member of the contessa’s household act as her liaison. Still, Sylas knew that Salvatora Borgiana and her jardin had been without proper leadership since the death of her lord paramount and husband, Arno, during the jardin wars. That Richard had permitted the situation to persist for so long puzzled him, but was not a matter for him to question or challenge.

“Sylas of Daven, Lord Locksley’s castellan.” He walked forward a few steps, eliminating most of the space between them before returning the bow. Among the Kyn, it was a gesture of confidence as well as a silent offer of friendship. “You and your men are welcome here, maréchal.”

“We will endeavor not to create any hardship for you or your men, castellan.” Saetta turned and introduced his most senior men, who exchanged the proper greetings while keeping a wary eye on the battlement patrols watching them from above.

All of them, Sylas noticed, had old, faint marks on their faces, hands, or arms that he recognized as burn scars. It was not unusual for Kyn to suffer scarification from fire—burns healed slowly, and the flesh always retained some mark from it—but he had never seen so many afflicted.

Once Sylas had accomplished his turn at introductions, Saetta gestured toward the front gates. “What weapons we managed to bring with us from Italy are stowed on our transport vehicles. I have allowed my men to retain their daggers for personal protection. I ask your permission to permit them to continue to carry them during our stay at Rosethorn.”

Seventy men armed with daggers could inflict a great deal of damage. “You are under no threat here,” Sylas pointed out.

“True, but to strip a man of all his blades after he’s been driven from his homeland and obliged to seek shelter in a strange country, among those who are not blood Kyn…” Saetta made a subtle gesture. “It is a matter of personal dignity.”

He would not beg for his men, Sylas thought, but nor would he see them suffer unnecessarily. His respect for Saetta rose another notch.

“It took me fifty years to grow accustomed to not wearing a sword outside our territory. As long as your men conduct themselves appropriately, I will allow it.” He raised his voice a degree. “All of the mortals who serve at Rosethorn are tresori, and are to be treated as such. Females are given the right of choice, and the right of refusal. All Kyn women here have been claimed or are bonded.” He expected to hear a few soft groans, but none of the cavalieri made a sound. “We will see to your needs. Rosethorn has ample stores, and I will arrange to provide you with transportation at regular intervals to territory where you may hunt.”

“Your generosity will not be forgotten.” Saetta turned and issued an order in Italian, repeating it in English. “We are among friends here. You are to speak in their tongue and respect their customs. If you do not know, ask and you shall be told.”

The men responded in silent unison by each going down on one knee and crossing an arm over his chest.

“You are welcome here,” Sylas said. “Now come—come and meet your American Kyn.”

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