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September 29, 1208

House of Heaven

Jerusalem, the Holy Land

Sunken black eyes peered out of the two-inch view slot in the copper door. “No beggars,” a cross voice said in gutter Arabic, spewing into the air the stink of his rotten teeth.

Cristophe pulled back his cowl to reveal his shaven head, and the skin he had darkened with the juice of steeped nut hulls. To distract the eunuch from the light color of his eyes, he held up two pieces of silver.

“Four,” the eunuch demanded promptly.

Cristophe shrugged, turned away, and took a step in the direction of another brothel. As he expected, the eunuch threw the bolt and shoved open the door.

Stoop-shouldered by spine disease, a lifetime of beatings, or despair—probably all three—the eunuch twisted his head to one side. “Our women are plump and fragrant, their talents many.” He named a variety of sexual acts and services in the monotone of unthinking, repeated recital. “Three.”

Cristophe held up the twin silvers again.

“Miserly wretch. For the love of Allah, I take pity on you.” The eunuch beckoned, but when he tried to grab the coins from Cristophe’s hand, the knight blocked the snatch with a swat. “Not so quick. You pay first.”

The scent of frankincense and lung rot touched Cristophe’s nose. A thin hand reached out of the shadows behind the eunuch to caress his balled fist. “Leave this to me, Qutaybah. I shall settle with you later.”

The eunuch scowled at Cristophe. “He is too big, Afifah, and you too sick.”

“He does not come here to make use of me. That work was well done, long ago.” The courtesan drew back. “Come.”

Cristophe followed her through the narrow passages, ignoring the sounds of rutting all around them as she led him into her private chamber. Fire from the bronze braziers provided the only light, and the resins burning in them masked some of the smell of sickness. The wine table now held a bowl of oily herbs, a bundle of terebinth twigs, and a glass-bowled pipe blackened by the tar of frequent use.

He closed the door behind him and bolted it before he spoke to her in her native Urdu. “Why did you never tell me?”

“Do you care for some dreamsmoke? No?” Afifah went to a pile of cushions by the fire and slowly reclined. As she did, her veil slipped down to reveal her once-beautiful face, now too bony and gaunt for her cosmetics to conceal. “You took your time in coming to me.” She coughed into her sleeve, staining it with dark red blood.

She was very near death, he realized. “I could not sprout wings and fly.”

“For a time I did not think you would come to me at all.” Her lips parted, showing teeth stained yellow-brown from daily use of hashish. “Many nights I beseeched Allah that you would not. That you should already languish in the bowels of some sultan’s hell, chained beside your brothers.”

“They were my family.” Cristophe went to the only window and looked out at the flies swarming in a dark cloud over the open privy pit. “I am a priest now.”

“Finally ridding yourself of the concerns of the flesh.” Afifah giggled, a raspy parody of the girlish sound. “As you rid yourself of Palestine. Of me.”

“I never gave you reason to believe I would stay,” he reminded her. “From the beginning you knew what I was.”

“Oh, yes. The smith of black souls. The dark hammer of God.” Now she sounded sad. “Chiseling away at your own heart of stone.” A liquid cough followed the last word, and she covered her mouth with her veil this time, soaking it through.

Cristophe went to her, kneeling beside her to hold her quaking shoulders until the spasm passed. She represented the last of his mortal sins, this ashen flower, who had once been the most beautiful harlot in the city of David. He had imagined himself in love with her, with her clever hands and her silky words.

When she rasped in two breaths, he asked, “Why wait until you were dying to send for me?”

“Why did you leave me?” she countered.

He tucked her head beneath his chin. “I never had anything to offer you but pain and betrayal.”

“Then, perhaps. But now you are changed.” She used one bony finger to trace the bars of the passion cross on his unmarked tunic. “Doomed, they say, to escape my fate. Does this make you happy? I think not.”

He drew back. “If that is why you sent for me, I cannot save you, Afifah. I would but hasten your end.”

“We both of us know I am not the one you wish to save now.” She tugged off her veil, folding it over and over until she’d hidden the dark, clotted blood staining it. “It will not be long for me, I think. What will you do when you leave here?”

“I shall return to England.” He felt her shudder. “I cannot remain here, not as I am.”

The kohl lining the crepey skin around her eyes took on a brighter sheen. “And the gift you will take from here? What will you do with it?”

Cristophe shook his head. “I have no family, no holdings. I have given what wealth I had to the order. All I am permitted is my sword and my horse, and those I must surrender once I go into seclusion.”

Her thin fingers curled into the laces of his tunic. “You will give my Sunehri to them.”

She was not making a request. “Yes. That I think the wisest course.”

Afifah released him, and clapped her hands twice. When the eunuch hurried in, she said, “Bring my treasure to me.”

Qutaybah glared at Cristophe. “For this dog?”

“Not for him,” Afifah said. “For his God.”

Chapter 1

January 1, 2013

Knights Realm Stronghold

Orlando, Florida

“Stand ready,” Harlech, captain of the guard, called out.

His command silenced the three hundred men assembled in the courtyard and sent them into their ranks.

Above the main hall the four gatehouse towers glowed with a torchlit, watchful menace against the night sky. While the thousands of tourists who visited Knights Realm each season believed they had come to a medieval theme park, the castle’s occupants were not hired performers. Thrilled by the authenticity of the jousts, melees, and other spectacles of the Dark Ages, no human ever suspected that the people of the Realm were not mortal, or that what they did had never been a show.

Iron sconces bolted to the gray stone walls of the castle cast pools of strange white-blue light over the oiled, packed dirt beneath the men’s boots. Harlech preferred the natural scent and warmth of flame, but the modern civilized world had largely abandoned fire in favor of the tamed lightning they called “electricity.”

After a century of enduring the yellow light radiated by glass bulbs, Harlech found the merciless glare of the newly installed LED lights particularly annoying. But Americans had lately become obsessed with using as little power as possible—while saving every last tree they could in the bargain. Harlech fully expected mortals would in the next century regress back into a second Dark Age, whence he could happily return to using tallow and wood for light.

At least the important things have not changed. As Harlech scanned the formation, he permitted himself a small amount of pride and satisfaction. While the garrison had given their oath of loyalty to their lady paramount, Suzeraina Jayr mac Byrne, they were all of them his men. He had personally trained each and every warrior, and over time they had become a veritable army of death. While it had been more than a hundred years since war had last been waged on American soil, Harlech took nothing for granted. Centuries of living among mortals had taught him that much, he thought as he walked parallel to the front ranks. Should an invasion land tomorrow on the shores of their adopted country, his warriors were ready to…

Harlech halted and peered past a pikeman at a gap in the second line. “Lowell.”

The archer standing to the right of the empty space came to attention. “Aye, Captain.”

Harlech stepped through the first rank to ensure the glare of the light had not played a trick on his eyes. “Where is Beaumaris?”

Lowell frowned at the horizon. “Not here, sir.”

“So I fathom.” Leaning down to eliminate all but an inch of space between their faces added some necessary menace to Harlech’s soft murmur. “Where is he?”

Lowell did not blink or twitch a muscle. “I know not his present whereabouts, Captain.”

Harlech moved to the man on the left side of the gap. “Ponsworth.”


“Your chamber is next to Beaumaris’s, and you must walk past his door to report for duty. Is this not so?” The swordsman inclined his head in acknowledgment. “Well? Is he still abed, then?”

Ponsworth’s expression remained resolutely bland. “No, Captain.”

Harlech smiled. “So you then saw him leave his chamber.”

“I…I fear upon rising I was much preoccupied with my thoughts, sir.” Ponsworth’s upper lip twitched. “I passed by his chamber without notice of it or him.”

“How convenient for Beaumaris,” Harlech said sourly, “that you are such a thinker.”

He strode back to the front of the garrison and let the men see his displeasure for a full minute. “Our lady comes tonight to inspect our readiness. I will know where Beaumaris is before she arrives, or every man here will suffer the consequences. Am I understood?”

The men remained at silent attention.

“Rainer.” Harlech pointed at the towheaded giant standing at the end of the trackers’ line, and then at the ground. “Come here.”

As the garrison’s most beloved fool shambled through the ranks to stand before Harlech, he shrugged back his black cloak to reveal a hot pink tunic and glittering blue sequined kilt. Hand-painted smiley faces in matching colors dotted his blue hose and black boots.

“God in heaven.” Although like everyone in the Realm Harlech had grown accustomed to Rain’s penchant for colorful attire, this latest ensemble reached new heights of outrageousness. “What is this you wear, lad?”

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