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In Honor Bound
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ISBN-10: 1-55404-516-9
Genre: Romance/Medieval
eBook Length: 478 Pages
Published: December 2007

Total Readers: 1

From inside the flap

Ariane, a Wallachian Healer forced to tend an ailing Turk, becomes enslaved when the vassals of the four noble brothers who rule the Dark Citadel storm the Turk’s stronghold. Lord Stephen purchases the virginal Healer, and consigns her to the care of two trainers themselves slaves. Her coldly proud owner makes use of Radu’s and Antony’s extraordinary ability to tame a rebellious new concubine, and turn her into a marvelously responsive sexual partner primed to satisfy her lustful owner.

A gifted leader, Radu forges strong ties of love that bind Antony, Ariane and himself, in order to insure that the three of them enjoy the best possible chance to survive in a dangerous environment. During the storming of the Dark Citadel by a traitorous vassal, Radu, Antony, and Ariane escape, bearing their wounded owner with them. Having forced Stephen to open the gate of the secret exit, they flee to the one place where Ariane knows they can live safely: the Keep of the Unburied Dead, an abandoned stronghold shunned by the superstitious populace.

The ties of love binding Ariane, Antony and Radu to each other grow even stronger, now that the three adventurers enjoy the freedom for which they had so longed. The observant, highly intelligent healer shrewdly concludes that the disease feared to be the plague, which killed the former occupants of the Keep, was not borne on the mist of the Miasmal Swamp. After assuring her companions that only those who drank from the two wells into which the flood carried human excrement died of the lethal ailment, she convinces them that if they drink only from a seep issuing from a rock wall, they will survive.

Having assumed the title of Lord of the Keep, Radu strives to render his refuge defensible. With the help of the two bosom companions whom he so deeply loves, he first captures, and then recruits, a rag-tag group of noble outcasts whose liege lord and all of his followers died when Lord Alexander stormed and demolished their keep. When Lord Gregory appears with an army under his walls, Radu boldly negotiates a truce. When a band of unemployed mercenaries attacks the Keep of the Unburied Dead, Radu brings to bear all of his formidable military skill, and all of his native craftiness, to avert disaster.

Radu, Antony and Ariane unfailingly display cool daring, admirable resourcefulness, and whole-hearted acceptance of Radu’s unrelenting insistence that not only love, but strong ties of honor bind them inseparably to each other.

This offbeat historical novel combines a wildly unconventional love story with stirring scenes of action/adventure, in a compelling tale set against the colorful backdrop of fifteenth century Romanian feudalism as it existed at the end of the bloody reign of Vlad the Impaler.

In Honor Bound (Excerpt)

Chapter One

In the fall of 1462, a virulent plague swept through the land surrounding the Dark Citadel, the stronghold of Count Milos. No respecter of rank, the dreaded sickness struck indiscriminately, carrying off noble boyars keeping to their luxurious quarters, fully as often as it killed peasants laboring in the fields. Ariane’s parents succumbed, as did the Count: a shrewd old warrior who had ruled his small, isolated, but productive demesne with an iron hand.

At the moment that Milos rasped his final words to the four sons surrounding the old man’s bed in an imposing chamber within the Dark Citadel, Ariane wept bitter tears over the body of her mother, who survived her husband by only thirty hours. Even as sorrow flayed the only child of two prominent members of the native Wallachian aristocracy, she rejoiced that her mother had died comforted by her certainty that her sister Florika would care for the orphaned fourteen-year-old girl during these dangerous times.

A maid as intelligent and independent-minded as she was modest and virginal, Ariane judged herself spared for a lofty purpose. Obedient to an inner directive, she joined the Sisterhood of Healers ruled by Florika. That doughty dame trained her followers in ancient lore handed down for generations from mother to daughter--from withered crone to fresh young girl. Although raised by parents possessed of a taste for luxury, the youthful healer habitually dressed in the severe gray habit and white wimple denoting her calling: a vocation that differed from that of a nun only in the nature of the vows. Innately compassionate, she took pride in her ability to help the sick and the unfortunate.

Count Milos went to whatever judgment awaited him without ever suspecting that his four sons would concentrate their energies not on war, nor even on knightly pursuits such as hunting or jousting, but on indulgence in sensuality taken to a degree hitherto unparalleled in the experience of the men of their House. The subjects rendered uneasy by the death of the Count discovered that the new holders of power ruled the fiefdom surrounding the Dark Citadel in seeming amity, dividing responsibility for various aspects of governance, and increasing the wealth inherited from their sire.

That amazing hoard of golden ducats represented the profits from trading ventures conducted during the family’s voluntary exile among the infidels during the bloody, six-year-long reign of Vlad Dracula, the Impaler: the cruel prince recently imprisoned by King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary, who shortly thereafter installed Radu the Handsome, brother of the Impaler, as Voivode of Wallachia. The universally welcomed change of rulers proved as beneficial to the four Lords as it did to the populace so recently decimated by the mass executions staged by one of the most murderous despots ever to hold sway over a nation.

Ten years after her induction into the Sisterhood, Ariane wore her authority like a mantle, and her beauty like a veil. Her manner forbade the eyes of the crude peasant men, whose ailments she treated, to pierce that veil. The highborn woman living a life of unselfish service commanded the respect of battle-scarred knights, grim men-at-arms, and hard-eyed foresters in the service of Lord Gregory, as readily as she won the trust of the roughly clad peasants toiling on the land, or the merchants striving to prosper amid the periodic battles that so often led to foraging troops’ pillaging the walled town.

The mature self-possession habitually distinguishing the woman of twenty-four served her well at this crucial juncture. With easy grace, Ariane sat the mule bearing her at a good clip towards the stronghold of the Turkish Pasha who ruled the lands to the southeast of the Dark Citadel.

That alien domination, the healer knew, coexisted with the accord Radu the Handsome had forged with the Turks during the prior year. For the most part, that agreement kept those still-dangerous infidel enemies off Wallachian soil. Certain boyars, however, freely chose to offer allegiance to the Sultan rather than risk death or enslavement during the raids still launched by marauding Turks who crossed the Danube to attack strongholds located along Wallachia’s southern border. The Pasha impatiently awaiting her arrival, she musingly reminded herself, ruled a demesne located within the borders of Wallachia.

Although the contingent of infidel warriors forced Ariane and three younger healers to accompany them, they yet addressed with grave courtesy the authoritative leader of the group, whose dedication to an ideal of learning and service they revered. Unable to equal her serene unflappability, her subordinates failed to hide their profound apprehension, although they dared not voice a single querulous complaint. Her head held high, her shapely body erect, Ariane remained wrapped in an invulnerable armor of queenly dignity as she rode.

A high-ranking servant conducted her to the chamber wherein lay the Pasha.

"Excellency, what malady afflicts you?" she asked upon being escorted into the presence of the gaunt patriarch, noting that Mahmoud’s sunken eyes burned in the face ominously betraying the shape of the skull beneath. Dying, the healer judged unerringly, if silently. Kneeling beside the divan upon which the old man reclined, she courteously consulted with his attendants before laying her hands on her patient.

Expert fingers located and palpated the cancerous mass distending the otherwise shrunken belly. The woman’s eyes, clear as a pool reflecting the azure blue of the vaulted sky, met those of the dying warrior. "When the Almighty summons, one must obey," she told the sufferer forthrightly. "I can lessen the pain you bear with such fortitude, but I cannot prolong the life I’d assuredly save if I could."

No anger, no outrage leaped into the still-imperious visage of the patriarch. "Death comes when God wills," he acknowledged fatalistically. "Mix me the remedy, O Healer Revered Among the People, and receive my gratitude."

Ariane knelt by the couch, holding the cup containing a potent narcotic to the lips of the dying man, when the raiding force commanded by Count Alexander’s vassal Sir Bogdan burst through the entry opened by treachery. Swiftly, the invaders cut down the stunned warriors rallying so as to defend their dying lord. Shrieks rose above the clash of arms and the thud of falling bodies. The tread of booted feet underscored the shouts and war cries reverberating down the hall.

A broad shouldered Wallachian knight brutally dispatched the stately warrior seeking to prevent the raiders’ entry into the chamber occupied by the Pasha. Seconds later, the two men-at-arms flanking their leader slew the unarmed servants in attendance on the dying Turk.

Outraged, Ariane shielded her patient with her body even as she boldly fronted her countryman. "I forbid you to strike!" she hissed. "God will soon call this man to judgment!"

The woman’s courage penetrated even the fog of battle glazing the eyes of the knight, but failed to stay his hand. Roughly, he flung her aside. A sword already crimson pierced the wasted body of the Pasha, who cursed his killer even as he died.

A hand of iron withdrew the dripping blade. Pausing only to wipe it contemptuously on the robe of the dead Turk, the man in command turned to the two subordinates contending to see who first violated the woman from whose body they had together ripped wimple and gown. Struggling impotently in their grip, Ariane protested with desperate vehemence in the Wallachian tongue, to no avail.

Sir Bogdan’s hand landed like an eagle’s talon on the shoulder of the man claiming first right of entry. That individual he sent sprawling. The second attacker caught a buffet to the ear that hurled him across the prone body of his fellow.

"This succulent prize will serve your betters, not you!" the aggressor roared, his eyes blazing. "She’s worth ten golden ducats, if she’s worth an obol! Content yourselves with the servants of the infidels, you lust-blinded fools!"

Standing stark naked before the knight, Ariane cried heatedly, "I’m a loyal subject of the four Lords!"

A derisive laugh greeted that vehement affirmation. "Three of us can bear witness that we caught you in the act of giving aid to this foul enemy," the leader scoffed. "You’re a thrice-damned traitor. You’ll serve the Lords’ pleasure, wench, to expiate your heinous offense. Sir Peter! Chain this doe among swine, and herd her into the wagon with any others you deem worth hauling back to the Citadel."

Ariane shuddered as the burly knight newly arrived on the scene tossed her nude person unceremoniously over his mailed shoulder. His face, seen through a fog of terror, she recognized as that of another vassal of Lord Alexander. Effortlessly bearing his burden, her captor strode through a scene of carnage and rapine.

Ice crystallized in the blood of the woman assaulted by sights and sounds that would trouble her dreams for weeks to come. When the knight emerged from the Turkish stronghold, and thrust her into the hands of two lesser brutes loading captives into a box-like coach standing just inside the breached gate of the outer walls, the captive saw that the sun had sunk low in the sky. Fear convulsed her, rendering her faint.

Strong hands snapped an iron collar around her neck while a second set of deft fingers manacled her wrists. The latter guard raised her arms, bent them, and secured the link joining the manacles to a ring at the rear of the collar. Prying open her jaws, he thrust a sphere of braided leather into her mouth, and knotted the straps of the gag behind her head. That businesslike captor then raised the short length of chain attached to the link joining the fetters, and fastened the end to a hook protruding from the oaken top of the coach.

The healer’s body pressed against the nearest four of perhaps twenty young women: black-haired, white-skinned Turkish girls whose liquid dark eyes seemed to the pitying viewer to be pools of shame. As nude as was she, similarly gagged and chained to the roof, they projected a soundless aura of terror: a palpable energy that penetrated the Wallachian woman’s mind, and reinforced her own all but uncontrollable fear. Conscious that her auburn hair and blue eyes set her visually apart from her fellow captives, she nonetheless experienced a sense of total abandonment by her kind.

Doors slammed at the rear of the conveyance. We’ll die of a dearth of air! the Wallachian protested silently, awash in horror, until the eyes held unnaturally wide caught the faint light filtering through two barred vent-holes at either side of the box-like body of the coach. The acrid odor of perspiration mingling with heavy perfume blended suddenly with the ammoniacal smell of urine. The girl whose body slumped inertly against hers seemed to have fainted. Or is she dead? the healer wondered, unable to discern the truth in the nearly absolute darkness. If her heart has stopped beating, she’s the luckiest of us!

With a jarring lurch, the coach rumbled into movement. The crack of the driver’s lash reached the ears of the pinioned captives, as did the dull thudding of heavy hoofs on hard-packed earth.

The iron collar chafed the healer’s neck as her body absorbed the jolts. She braced her legs, but other legs competed for the space. The gag made swallowing her saliva difficult. Moisture dribbled from the side of Ariane’s mouth to run unchecked down her chin.

Fear fogged her mind. Get hold of yourself! she silently exhorted her alter ego, echoing an oft-repeated adjuration levied by her indomitable aunt at subordinates yielding to panic in a crisis. You’re the daughter of a boyar! Claim your rights when you stand in the presence of these arrogant lords who possess the gall to call themselves Christian knights!

After a seeming eternity, during which the captives suffered direly from claustrophobia, the coach clattered across what the Wallachian straining to hear assumed to be flagstones. The vehicle rattled to a stop several times before halting permanently. The doors swung open. Hands unhooked chains. Those same hands passed nude, pinioned, female bodies to new aggressors. Ariane became the last captive to enter a line of women cruelly prodded with pointed sticks into advancing across a huge cavern: one of many large caves connected by narrower passageways carved by percolating groundwater in prehistoric times.

Though terrified, the healer managed to control her fear, and observe her surroundings. At the rear of the huge cavern, she beheld stables built beneath a wooden platform. At one side rose a flight of wooden steps. A wall of sacks bordered the edge of the platform. Grain for the horses, she surmised.

On her right, she beheld the coach. Beyond it, she saw retainers holding saddled horses by the reins. Even as she studied her surroundings, the guards drove her into a second chamber on her left. This cavern she saw to be narrow, but long.

The Dark Citadel of the Four Lords, the captive unerringly identified the premises luridly lit by flaming torches projecting from iron fixtures driven deeply into the stone of the walls. Their underground lair, built inside caves. The men of their House have occupied this stronghold for generations. These sons of Milos changed drastically during their sojourn in Turkey. They grew fond of evil practices foreign to our way of life!

Burgeoning fright put the resourceful aristocrat’s superb self-control to a rigorous test. One of two captors detached the link keeping the manacled wrists attached to the collar chafing her neck. That man raised her hands high, and fastened the link to a rope, which he passed through a hook that ran freely down a track overhead. Other figures moved forward ahead of her. The women proceeded in total silence, being universally gagged. Staring out of dilated eyes, Ariane spied one of her subordinates, far ahead: a delicate girl whose blonde hair flowed like honey down her back.

How dare they! the healer in charge of her younger colleagues mutely raged. How dare they!

A brawny man clad only in a loincloth pulled on the rope, causing Ariane’s nude body to rise into the air. The outraged Wallachian now hung suspended above the stone floor. The captor grasping the rope’s end gave her a push, causing her to swing out over a sunken bath. He then played out the line, sending her plummeting into hot soapy water to her neck. Three times he pulled on the rope to raise her struggling body, only to drop her back into the bath. On the fourth lift, he pulled her to the edge. Having removed the rope, he passed her to a new team of attendants.

Two burly men, whose necks she saw to be fitted with iron collars, laid their charge supine on a rough board, positioned so that her head hung over the end. After strapping her down, one of the slaves pressed upwards on the point of her jaw to tip her head back, thereby dunking her long hair into a tub of what smelled like lamp oil. Holding her thus, he poured a cupful of the noisome liquid over her scalp while issuing a guttural command that she close her eyes.

The other man probed through the oil-saturated hair with a crude wooden comb. "No lice that I can see," he growled. "We’re running late. Pass her on, so I can give more time to them as needs the remedy."

"Aye," his fellow grunted.

Futile rage convulsed the gut of the woman lifted in muscular arms, and strapped to a new table. Her reeking hair now disappeared into a tub of hot soapy water. A female slave, naked but for a wrap around her loins, scrubbed Ariane’s stinging scalp. The captive beheld a dull-eyed, middle-aged drudge, her body exhibiting a few prominent red welts, her face a mask of vacuity. Pity contended with hot ire, with outrage, and with steeply escalating terror, as a hot rinse preceded immersion of the hair into warm water smelling of vinegar.

Two elderly male slaves, their bleak, deeply lined faces harassed and fearful, stayed the forward course of the woman shoved to their station along the track. Leaving her to hang motionless, suspended by her manacled wrists from the hook in such wise that her feet failed to touch the ground, they turned their attention elsewhere.

Dangling helplessly, the horrified viewer watched them bind a young, manifestly affrighted Turkish girl to a rough wooden table. One slave spread her legs wide. The other parted her labia, and inspected her sexual organs.

"Virgin," he muttered to his fellow. "Pass her to the left."

The second man prodded the sobbing girl, whom he freed of the straps, towards a gathering of shivering captives who the suspended viewer saw to be barely adolescent: undoubtedly maidens as yet unmarried. A second contingent, all older women thick of body, or plain of face, stood at a considerable distance. A third group, uniform not in age, but in their pronounced attractiveness, huddled together under the eye of a man obviously possessed of authority.

The elder slave favored Ariane with only a cursory glance. "She’s almost too old to qualify as aught but a servant," he growled to his cohort. "We’re running so late we’ll earn lashes as it is. She can’t be virgin, at her age. Haul her down, and pass her to the right. They’ll switch her, if they judge her too old to merit training as a concubine."

Even as she advanced under insistent prodding towards the group of weeping girls who she suspected to be newly widowed, Ariane winced as her relief at escaping such horrific scrutiny mingled with terror. I’ve never known a man! she cried distractedly to her alter self. What will become of me in this abode of evil?

Guards conducted the groupings back to the entry of the cavern that featured no other means of egress. Strong hands thrust Ariane forward into the presence of a compactly built man of medium height, but regal presence.

Recognizing Lord Stephen, Seneschal of the Citadel, the nobly born woman rapidly reviewed what she knew of the sons of Count Milos. The brothers divided the responsibility for maintaining their ancestral demesne. Count Alexander, Lord Constable, nominally ruled. He commanded the military force, but left the governance of the estates and the ordering of the household to the Seneschal. Lord Gregory oversaw the Forest Demesne reserved for the exclusive use of the four Lords.

As the name of the youngest brother, Vlad, rang in her mind, the healer shivered in fear. Cruel, these Lords, but Vlad stands head and shoulders above his brothers in that respect, she reminded her alter self. May the Almighty preserve me from falling into the power of so evil a man!

As she watched the autocrat in close proximity, Lord Stephen absently stroked his clean-shaven chin. Meditatively, he studied the shapely body of the woman standing with arms raised and bent, her shackled wrists once again secured to the rear of the iron collar. His eyes grew intent, predatory.

"Lovely," he muttered, to his own self, rather than to the retainer standing to his rear. As he spoke, he flicked the tip of the heavy leather dog-whip he bore in one hand across a rosy nipple. "Comely, if mature. Deliciously full-breasted…seductively shaped. Enticing rump. Experienced, no doubt. Suffering from outraged modesty. That incipient rebelliousness needs to be swiftly quashed. Indeed, yes."

Deeply hazel eyes bored into those of purest blue. "When your gag’s removed, you’ll speak only to reply instantly and truthfully to my questions. Any extraneous words will earn you a painful slash. So be warned, slave."

The servant now moved behind Ariane, and removed the gag.

"Your name?"

"Ariane: a healer, and a loyal subject!"

That bold act of disobedience evoked a swift retaliatory response. The thick, round lash of tightly braided leather landed with brutal force on the woman’s bare flank, flashed upward, and fell again. Agony seared the tender flesh on which two welts now rose.

"I asked only your name!" Stephen rasped. "Limit your words to those I demand of you!" The Seneschal’s eyes glittered ominously as he commanded, "Name your father and your mother."

Enveloped in pain, Ariane gasped out two names.

Lord Stephen regarded her appraisingly. "Undoubtedly, you were taken in the act of aiding the enemy of our House. That crime renders the transgressor liable to suffer a shameful death. I ought to have you strangled, but I’m disposed to be merciful, little spitting cat. You’ll expiate your offense by existing henceforth for our pleasure."

Turning, he spoke musingly to his assistant. "Send her in among the last captives to be offered for sale to my brothers. I’m minded to acquire this chattel whose athletic grace suits my tastes better than do the plump, too-soon-overripe bodies of girls kept as spoiled pets in harems."

Hot anger contended with relief in the mind of the woman who regarded this man as far less dangerous than the dreaded Vlad. That relief soon dissolved in a new onslaught of shame, as the sorely tried captive, once again gagged, endured the parading of her nude self through the huge entry-cavern, where grooms and stable-hands leered at the naked women driven along by guards wielding sharply pointed staffs.

Thus goaded, she mounted the steps, circumvented the stacked grain-sacks, and proceeded down a narrow, winding corridor. The line of captives passed under a heavy iron portcullis set into grooves in the rock wall. Forced to turn left, the column proceeded under duress into an antechamber of the commodious cavern visible through a wide doorway.

After waiting for an eternity, Ariane advanced, prodded by guards, into the larger apartment. There her handlers exhibited herself and three other women not only to the four Lords, but also to a host of male underlings. All of the spectators riveted lustful eyes on the bodies of the four captives propelled by the guards into a line, and chained to the hooked ends of iron bars projecting from the walls. The ubiquitous torches provided all too much light. Controlling incipient panic by the sheer power of an indomitable will, the healer studied the faces of the noble captors about to bid on her shamefully exposed person.

Lord Alexander she guessed to be nearing forty. Tall, broad shouldered, martial in appearance, and bearded, unlike the brothers who sedulously shaved all of their facial hair but for a moustache, he yet exhibited subtle signs of decaying athleticism: pouches under his hazel eyes, a double chin, a protuberant belly. Clad, as were his brothers, in a long, richly fashioned robe trimmed with fur and pulled in sharply at the waist by an elaborately stitched band of soft leather, the eldest brother needed the most ample length of belt to encompass his girth. A few touches of gray streaked the jet-black hair as characteristic of the men of his House as were the slightly hooked nose and the wide-set, limpidly expressive eyes.

Ariane’s glance shifted to Lord Gregory, who she judged to be three or four years younger than Alexander. Tall, debonair, graceful as the stags to which he delighted in giving chase, he lounged against the wall, the epitome of ennui. As the fair observer watched, he yawned, and covered his mouth. His eyes drifted listlessly down her body before wandering idly to that of the Turkish girl next to the woman unerringly concluding that Gregory had earlier made careful selections from the contingent of youthful virgins, and now found the proceedings boring.

Chills chased down Ariane’s spine as Vlad’s eyes actively raked her every curve. His voice, honeyed as that of a master merchant, lacerated her blistered nerve-endings.

"Ahhh…no Turk, this wench. Ripe, she is. Possessed of a temper to match that red hair, I’ve no doubt. I rather fancy taming so spirited an animal." Turning languidly to Lord Stephen, he drawled, "Four golden ducats. Too much--but I’m weary of haggling, brother." Sweeping his glance from Gregory to Alexander, he smiled.

In the fevered awareness of the trembling captive, that smile seemed one that Satan himself might employ. Covertly observing the youngest brother, Ariane noted the pale skin, the glossy moustache trimmed to perfection, the full lips over which their owner occasionally flicked a moist tongue, the long eyelashes, the nose lacking even the slight hook distinguishing the noses of his brothers. The eyes that slanted a trifle seemed to the overwrought captive to resemble those of a venomous reptile.

"Five golden ducats," Stephen countered dispassionately.

Vlad’s hard, compact body turned with fluid grace. This member of the family the healer knew to be entrusted with the purchase of costly luxuries brought to Wallachia either from the Holy Roman Empire or the Far East. Those goods arrived after a long journey in the pack trains of bold merchants, or a voyage aboard one of the ships plying the Black Sea. Grudgingly, Ariane acknowledged Vlad to be the handsomest man in the chamber. Iridescent, blue-green eyes impaled those of the Seneschal so like his brothers except for his habitual phlegmatic calm.

A sardonic laugh accompanied a malicious, chilling smile, as the youthful boyar spat sharp-edged words sheathed in velvet. "Departing from your custom of sticking to one favorite meticulously trained to accommodate your…exacting tastes, Lord Seneschal? Or are you changing favorites?"

The drawling voice dripped poisonous sweetness, yet stopped short of projecting overt insult.

The pregnant pause irked the man to whom Vlad directed the question, but no hint of exasperation crossed Stephen’s serene, cold countenance. "I’m changing favorites. I lack your love of…variety, little brother."

The resonant voice that so expertly mimicked the questioner’s provocative pause grated on the ears of the hearers who rightly interpreted the diminutive as subtly disparaging to the youngest scion of the House. To a man, they awarded the speaker points for utter fearlessness. Vlad, they well knew, made a singularly dangerous enemy.

"Seven golden ducats," Vlad drawled, as his eyes, ominously lidded, shifted from the slave to the Seneschal.

"Eight," Stephen countered laconically.

At length, Vlad broke a pulsating silence. A light laugh set ice crystallizing anew in Ariane’s blood. "I suspect you’re raising the bid so as to stick me with overpriced goods not wildly in demand, Lord Seneschal," he observed, his tone calculatedly jocular. "Well, I decline to fall into the trap. I give you joy of the wench. Perhaps she’ll prove…unusually adept. Able to charm a man renowned for counting his self-imposed duties more pressing even than…sensual delights."

Icy anger now radiated from the object of a spurious compliment that came across as conveying something other than the literal meaning.

"All of us might well profit by heeding Stephen’s example in that regard," Gregory drawled ruminatively, upon beholding the Seneschal’s eyes narrow to slits. Smiling at Alexander while placing his lithe body directly between Vlad and Stephen, he added, "I offer three golden ducats for that sloe-eyed Turk on the end of the line."

The antagonism that had flared between the two kinsmen now dissipated.

Stephen regained his accustomed impassivity of countenance. Vlad subsided into his usual demeanor: arrogance only slightly edged with impudence. As golden coins rang on a table, servants took charge of newly acquired slaves.

The Seneschal disdained to consign his property to an underling. Snapping a lead-chain around Ariane’s waist, he led her away, jerking her along exactly as he would a poorly trained hound on a leash.