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Ashfirth was unable to keep the shock from his voice. 'The Princess is in here?'
Shooting a disbelieving glance at his captain, Ashfirth dismounted. He was careful to hide the twinge of pain in his leg. Lord, it felt no better, despite the rest he had given it. The ride from the port on the other side of the salt marshes had not been arduous, but his leg felt as though it was being gnawed by wolves. Surely broken bones mended more quickly than this? Removing his helmet, he hooked it over his saddle bow, surreptitiously easing his aching limb. He wanted his men to think he was fully recovered.
'What did you say this place was?' He shoved back his mail coif.
'It's a convent, sir.'
It didn't look much. The dome of the church was barely visible above the convent walls. It was cracked like a broken eggshell and someone had attempted to repair it. A botched job. Weeds had taken root in the rendering.
'I'll lay odds that roof leaks,' Ash said.
Captain Brand grinned and shook his head. 'Only a fool would take that bet on, Commander.'
Ash made a non-committal sound and completed his survey of the walls and buildings. Why on earth would the Princess take refuge in a minor convent outside Dyrrachion? To the military eye, the walls were also in dire need of repair. One section was little better than a tumble of stone; it was splotchy with yellow lichen and clearly had been that way for some time. Even as Ash looked, a bell tinkled and a brown-and-white goat leaped into view in the opening. The goat stood for a moment on top of the stones, its slanty eyes unearthly in the morning light. Then, the bell at its neck a-jangle, it leaped down and wandered into the scrub. Ash lifted a brow.
What the devil was Princess Theodora doing here? The answer flashed back in an instant. Tucked away at the northern edge of the Empire, this convent was to her mind probably ideal. The womanAsh eased his leg again, he would strangle her when he finally got his hands on hermost likely thought this was the last place anyone would look.
'It is the last place,' Ash murmured, realising with a sense of surprise that he was closer to England, his homeland, than he'd been in years. The thought brought no pain, which was less of a surprise. Ashfirth had long ago come to terms with his new life, but come to terms he had, thank God.
'If the Princess thinks that wall will keep us out, she can think again.'
Brand eyed the low wall and grinned again. 'Yes, sir.' The sunlight bounced off the razor-sharp edge of his battle-axe. Brand was a good captain, and an excellent scout. Once they had arrived in Dyrrachion, he had been quick to make contact with someone who had mentioned a nearby convent that offered shelter to ladies from all walks of life. 'Does this ruin have a name?'
'St Mary's.' Captain Brand cleared his throat, opened his mouth, appeared to think better of it and closed it again.
'There's more, isn't there? Come on, man, out with it.' Brand was struggling to keep a straight face. Like Ash, Brand was an Anglo-Saxon from England and Ash could read him as he might read a brother, particularly when, as now, they were speaking in English.
'Yes, sir. St Mary's is renowned hereabouts.'
'St Mary's doesn't look as though it would be renowned for anything except the wretched state of its masonry.'
'It takes in women, sir women who choose to leave the world because they repent of their former way of life.'
Ash raised an eyebrow. 'The Princess has taken refuge in a convent for fallen women?'
'The Princess must be desperate.' 'Sir?'
'Why else run to Dyrrachion, to a convent for fallen womenshe really doesn't want to marry Duke Nikolaos, does she?' Briefly, Ash spared a thought for the woman they had tracked to this remote outpost.
'Why should marriage to the Duke of Larissa be so repellent, sir?'
'Lord knows.' Ash had never met Duke Nikolaos, he knew him only by repute. Accounts spoke of a fine soldier, a brilliant commander. A man of honour. 'The Duke of Larissa's holding is at the heart of the Empire; he is of the old elite, the military aristocracy. She could hardly hope to do betterher reservations about marrying him are odd, to say the least.'
'Wasn't Princess Theodora's first betrothal to an outsider?'
'Yes, she was betrothed to one of the Rascian princes. The rumour is that she grew fond of himthat must explain her reluctance to marry Duke Nikolaos.' Ash grimaced. 'But the Rascian prince is dead, she has to forget him.'
Brand rubbed his chin. 'That may be easier said than done, sir.'
'Nevertheless, she must forget him.' Ash knew that Greek princesses usually viewed marriages made outside the boundaries of the Empire as something of a penance. He also knew that Greek princesses were highly sought after all over Christendom, possibly because such contracts rarely took place. 'Prince Peter was only a minor prince. Her new fiance, Duke Nikolaos of Larissa, is of a different order altogetherhe is one of the most powerful men in the Empire. The Emperor considers this marriage important, Princess Theodora will not be allowed to wriggle out of it.'
Ashfirth glanced at the convent. The Princess might be reluctant to return home, but his priorities were clear. As Commander of the Varangian Guard, Ashfirth answered to the Emperor and to no one else.
Back in the Great Palace in Constantinople, the ageing Emperor had summoned Ash to a private audience in an apartment where the walls glittered with golden mosaics from floor to ceiling.
The Emperor, arguably the most powerful man in Christendom, had slumped in his throne like a man sapped of strength. There he had sat, much withered by age, seemingly diminished by the trappings of power that surrounded him. There was the double-headed eagle on the Imperial standard; there were the Imperial robes. It had struck Ash that never had that standard looked more forlorn. And as for the robes, it seemed that they were wearing the man.
Surely it ought to be the other way around, surely the man should wear the robes?
The voice was creaking and tired. 'Commander, the Rascian prince who was betrothed to my niece the Princess Theodora is dead,' Emperor Nikephoros had told him. 'You are to bring her home.'
Strictly speaking, Princess Theodora was not the Emperor's niece; in truth, she was the niece of the previous Emperor, Michael Doukas. But it would not have been tactful for Ash to have pointed this out because the new Emperordespite his advanced yearshad married Emperor Michael's young and beautiful wife. This made the question of Princess Theodora's relationship to him a moot point.
'My niece has been living among barbarians for too long,' Emperor Nikephoros had gone on to say. 'In the Palace she may reacquaint herself with more civilised ways and prepare herself to meet her new betrothed, Duke Nikolaos.'
Which was how Ash came to be thousands of miles away from his quarters in the Boukoleon Palace, and now found himself near the port of Dyrrachion, staring at the gate of this out-of-the-way convent.
A convent for fallen women.
The gate looked sturdier than the walls; it was made of seasoned oak bleached by many summers. A small barred window had been cut into it at eye level. At present it was shuttered fast, but a bell-pull hung alongside it.
Unstrapping his battle-axe, Ash hung it over his pommel alongside his helmet. He caught Brand's eye. 'You, too, Brandthere is no sense in frightening the ladies.'
Unless we have to. Frightening the ladies might be the only way to get the Princess to accept his escort back to Constantinople.
While Brand disarmed himself, Ash gave a final glance at the lichen-splotched walls and approached the gate. The walls would not present much of an obstacle if the Princess balked at going with them; in truth, his men would likely relish a minor challenge after being cooped up on board ship. But he must start with a diplomatic approach; she was a member of the Imperial family.
Brand was watching him, reading his mind. He eyed the walls. 'We could get in that way easily, sir.'
'Save that thought, we might need it later.' Ash gestured at the gate. 'In the meantime, see if you get someone's attention, the place appears to be deserted.'
Brand grinned. 'Perhaps they ran out of fallen women.'
'With the city and port so close?' Ash gave a short laugh. 'Not likely. The Princess and her entourage are in there, I am sure of it. All we have to do is extract her, then we may be back at the Palace by Easter.'
Nodding agreement, Brand heaved on the bell-pull.
Ash shifted, taking the weight off his bad leg. Lord, but it achedthe Princess had better hurry; the thought of a massage from his body-servant Hrodric was becoming more attractive by the moment.
The shutter in the gate clicked open. Ash squared his shoulders.
Princess Theodora might have had him chasing all over the Empire, but finally he had found her. He might feel like wringing her neck, but since she was the Emperor's niece and a member of the powerful Doukas family, it was probably treason even to think such a thought. So, when a pair of brown eyesvery beautiful brown eyescame into view on the other side of the grille, Ash had a smile ready.
'Good day,' he said, switching effortlessly to Greek. 'I should like to speak to Princess Theodora.' The eyes widened. Doe's eyes.
Ash thought he heard a woman's voice, and for a moment those doe's eyes slid sideways. Someone standing next to her was speaking to her. Then the dark eyes met his, directly. A visceral jolt went through him. He frowned.
'Your name, sir?' Her voice was light and clear. Courteous.
'Ashfirth Saxon, Commander of the Varangian Guard. The Emperor has charged me with escorting Princess Theodora back to the Great Pal'
The eyes withdrew, the shutter closed with a snap.
Gritting his teeth, Ashfirth exchanged glances with his captain. As one, they turned to look at the crumbling wall.
'I'll give her half an hour,' Ash said.
Brand's face brightened.
Yes, the men are definitely in need of exercise.
On the other side of the gate, the Princess was standing at Katerina's side. Her violet veil was trembling.
'Is he there, Katerina? Has the Duke come in person?'
'Despoina? My lady?' 'Is the Duke outside?'
Katerina pressed her nose to the grille and peered through a crack in the shutter. 'I do not know if those are his men, my lady. What does Duke Nikolaos look like?' Katerina's gaze was caught by the taller of the two warriors standing at the entrance. 'There is a man here who calls himself Ashfirth Saxon. He wants speech with you.'
'Ashfirth Saxon?' Princess Theodora's tone was scornful, but Katerina heard the quiver in it and pitied her. Her mistress really did not wish to marry Duke Nikolaos. 'Who is this Ashfirth Saxon?'
He's tall and fierce-looking. He has wind-burned skin. His hair gleams like jet and his eyesHeavens!how did a man with such dark hair come by eyes so blue? Katerina's gut clenched as she inched the shutter open, the better to study him. Ashfirth Saxon had eyes that were almost as turquoise as the stones set in the cover of Princess Theodora's book of psalms. They made a disturbing contrast with the jet-black hair.
'He says he is Commander of the Varangian Guard and'
'The Varangians? Holy Mother, don't tell me the Emperor has sent his personal guard!' The Princess tugged at the sleeve of Katerina's gown, bracelets chinking. 'Are you certain? Can you see battle-axes?'
'Yes, despoina. My lady, the men on horseback all have axes and'
'They are mounted?' The Princess's voice calmed. 'Varangian guards usually fight on foot.'
'Not all are mounted, my lady.'
'Are they dressed for battle?'
'They are wearing coats of mail, certainly.'
The Princess swore, using an oath that Katerina was certain ought never to be uttered within the walls of a convent.
'Don't be such a prude, Katerina. You know where most of these nuns have come fromthey will have heard far worse, I am sure.'
Katerina doubted it, but she held her tongue. She should not have spoken up, it was not her place to criticise.
The Princess poked her in the ribs. 'Are you sure you can see no sign of the Duke? His standard, perhaps?'