parsimonious and cunning as ever, in expert control of all he surveyed — except his own mortality. Within two months of Renard’s departure, the old man was dead of a bad eel stew and his lands cast into turmoil as his daughter and his nephew tussled for the throne.

Renard had wanted to come home, but his father had advised against it. Stephen, having snatched the first initiative and with it the Crown, was demanding sureties for good behaviour in the form of hostages from those barons he did not trust, his father among them. If Renard was absent, then he need neither be yielded up nor refused to the King, and a smiling diplomacy could be maintained.

Renard’s two younger brothers were already marcher land-holders in their own right and therefore unlikely to be summoned to dally in custody at the court. John, his older brother, was a chaplain in the Earl of Leicester’s household, and since the latter strongly supported Stephen’s right to be king, John was safe for the moment.

Ancelin and de Lorys were still discussing women. Washing his hands in a bowl of rose-scented water and drying them on the towel presented by Johad, Renard wondered briefly about Elene. How old would she be now? Approaching seventeen and more than ready for marriage. She had been willing four years ago, but her body had been unripe even if her mind had been set, and the ceremony had been deferred until his return.

Nell, he thought, with her puppy-like devotion and her joy in all aspects of domestic duty. A fine wife she would make, and an excellent mother to the enormous brood of children with which she expected him to furnish her. Neither mind nor body kindled at the prospect. Their betrothal was a business arrangement, agreed ten years ago; a duty not onerous, but lacking the spark that might have driven him eagerly home to his marriage bed. Here in Outremer, finding a woman for the basic need was simple. It was the men who died.

Johad served dishes of halva, platters of fresh figs, and a sherbet made from pressed lemons. Renard selected a fig. The halva was delicious, but it caused worm rot in the teeth and the taste of honey was sometimes too over-powering. Like this land, he thought. First it tempted you, then it dissolved into your bones, corroding them. Perhaps that was why he was longing for plain Norman fare and the cold, damp spring of the marches that made a fur cloak a necessity. A shiver of longing ran down his spine as he drank some of the cold, slightly bitter sherbet.

The discussion about women had ended in a decision to do more than merely discuss. ‘Want to come?’ asked de Lorys as he rose from the remains of his meal and brushed stray grains of rice from his silks. ‘One of the men was telling me they’ve got a new dancer at the Scimitar.’

‘Have they?’ Renard’s interest sharpened. The Scimitar was expensive but the girls were usually worth it.

‘A Turcopol girl. Blond in both places.’ De Lorys gestured eloquently and grinned.

Renard arched a sardonic eyebrow. ‘I won’t ask how your informant knows,’ he said.

The Scimitar was bursting at the seams when they arrived, but Renard was well known there, and the proprietor quickly found a place for him to sit and furnished him with a drink.

A youth with kohl-rimmed eyes and a painted mouth propositioned him. Madam FitzUrse, the proprietor’s wife, swatted the boy away in the direction of some Genoese sailors up from St Simeon and apologised. ‘Sometimes we get asked, and it doesn’t do to turn custom away,’ she said.

Renard smiled and raised his cup to her. ‘Business is business,’ he replied gravely.

She regarded him from the corner of a sly, bright eye. ‘Here to see our new dancer are you, my lord?’

Renard affected indifference. ‘I was dragged out by my men who were desperate to get their hands upon some vice after the monk’s life I’ve been making them lead. I am only here to regulate their excesses.’ Then he grinned. ‘But if you have a new dancer, I suppose I might watch.’

‘Hah!’ she nudged him with a meaty elbow. ‘You’ll do more than just watch!’ Forefinger and thumb came up to rub before his face. ‘I’ll warn you now, she’s not cheap. Cost you half a mark.’

‘If she is going to excite me enough to part with half a mark, I doubt I’ll last long enough to justify the expense,’ he said with amusement. ‘Try Ancelin or de Lorys.’

She looked shocked. ‘Would you give your best mare to a novice? Besides, they’ve already found themselves company.’ Patting his arm, she went to help her besieged husband who was refilling pitchers. ‘See me later when you change your mind,’ she called over her shoulder with cheerful confidence.

Renard stared round in search of his knights. Ancelin was in the act of disappearing out of the door with a plump Armenian girl who also sometimes danced. De Lorys was arm-wrestling another customer for the favours of a sultryeyed Syrian woman with a body as lush as the fertile plain of Sharon.

Several times he was approached by one or another of Madam FitzUrse’s girls, but although he knew most of them by name and some by a more intimate acquaintance, he turned them away, his mind dwelling in rank curiosity on the ridiculousness of paying half a mark to spend the night with a whore no matter her beauty or expertise.

Shortly before the dancing was due to start, he finished his drink and went outside to piss, and there, in the star-studded darkness of an eastern night, his present mood of nostalgia was consolidated with such force that for a moment he was totally disorientated.

A man’s voice spoke from the walled shadows, slurred with drink, but unmistakably using the Welsh tongue. A woman answered him in the same language, her voice low, husky and full of anger, and as Renard’s eyesight adjusted, he made out two figures standing close in argument. ‘I will not!’ she hissed. ‘The money is mine. I work for it and you’re not going to swill it down your gutter of a throat!’

‘You little whore, you’ll do as I say!’ The man’s fist wavered up.

‘Go swive yourself!’ Accurately she spat in his face and ducked under his arm. He made a grab for her enveloping dark robe and suddenly a dagger blade flashed in his hand as he wrenched her round to face him.

‘Your face is your fortune, girl!’ he snarled. ‘Don’t tempt me to ruin it.’

Renard set his hand to his own dagger hilt and took a forward pace, but before he could intervene, the girl made a sinuous movement and drew her own blade from within the voluminous folds of her robe. ‘Strike, then,’ she hissed. ‘Let us see who is the faster!’

Small bells tinkled daintily on her ankle bracelets and her feet were bare as she positioned them with feline precision.

Renard’s loins and belly contracted with an instinctive reaction to the dangers of a knife fight. The woman was holding her weapon competently, a gleaming silver crescent, and the man was staring at her in fuddled anxiety. Renard changed his mind about the identity of prey and victim.

‘Listen, lass, there’s no need—’

‘Piss-proud coward!’ she sneered, stepped again and struck. Metal grated on metal and in a circular motion the man’s knife spun like a falling star and puffed in the dust.

Weaponless, the man stared and swallowed. The woman’s feet wove across the ground and Renard caught a glimpse of spangled fabric as she shifted and struck again with the exquisite Saracen blade. Her victim howled and doubled up, clutching at his belly.

Deciding it had gone far enough, Renard shouted and strode towards them.

Startled, the woman looked up and across. Renard received the impression of huge, dark eyes and a chain of coins winking on a smooth, pale brow before she drew the hood of her robe around her face and, knife still in hand, melted into the deep shadows of a stone-arched entry that led into the back of the Scimitar.

‘Whore!’ the man gasped, still doubled over. ‘Conniving, ungrateful whore!’

Renard’s spine prickled. He stared towards the dark mouth of the entry and wondered whether he had really seen it happen or if his imagination was running wine-wild.

The man took one hand from his stomach and looked at the dark smear on his palm. ‘Bitch,’ he moaned. ‘No gratitude.’

‘It was what you deserved.’ Renard glanced round. Behind him he heard the tinkle of bells and the soft patpat of a drum. The dancing had started. ‘Is it bad?’

‘Course it’s bad!’ the man snarled. ‘Look what she’s done, the whore!’

Renard stared. Then he spluttered. The dagger had indeed caught the fool, but only the tip in a thin, red surface inscription. The mortal damage was to the string holding up the grey, stained chausses and whatever shreds of soused dignity the fool was striving to preserve.

Renard gave in to his laughter but was not so overcome that he did not see the man shuffling sideways, eyes to the ground. Reflexes entirely sober, Renard moved rapidly and closed his fingers on the haft of the fallen knife — once a serviceable but now sadly out-worn hunting dagger. The grip was dropping to pieces and the blade

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