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Authors: Loretta Chase

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Romance, #General, #Regency

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BOOK: The Lion's Daughter
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Varian
had risen, preparatory to carrying Percival over his shoulder to bed
if need be. Now he sat back down. After endless searching, the black
queen had finally been presumed

stolen,
and Sir Gerald had mentioned offering a thousand pounds for its
return. Varian could not believe his ears. He gazed at Percival with
narrowed eyes. “You
what!”

“I
meant to give Uncle Jason my rock

the
one with the green streaks and the little knobby—”

“The
rock's unique characteristics do not appear pertinent,” Varian
interrupted.

“I
beg your pardon, sir. Quite right. They're not

well,
not at present, I agree. The fact is, we were in the study. How we
got there is not pertinent either, I believe?” Percival asked,
looking up hopefully.

“Not
at present.”

“Well,
that's a relief, because
—”

“Percival.”

“Yes,
sir, indeed. To put it as succinctly as possible: I bumped into the
chess table and knocked some pieces over. In my agitated state

for
Papa would be most
—”
He caught Var-ian's eyes and went
on hurriedly, “Well, I must have wrapped the black queen in
Uncle Jason's handkerchief by mistake, because later I found the rock
was still in my pocket. When Papa told us the queen was gone, I knew
what had happened. But I couldn't tell him, could I?”

If
the queen was in Jason's possession, then it was in Albania by now,
hopelessly beyond the reach of a penniless nobleman.

“I
suppose not.” Varian rose once more. “I'm sure you're
emotionally drained by this confession, Percival, and most anxious to
rest.”

Percival
gazed at him consideringly. “Actually, now I've confessed, I
feel obliged to
do
something.”

“Yes.
Go to bed.”

“What
I mean is, we could get her back. That is to say, she
is
worth a thousand quid to Papa
and”

he
flung his arm eastward

”she's
right over there, you know.”


'Over there' is the Ottoman Empire.
Don't be absurd, Percival. Unless your uncle chooses to return it,
the queen is gone for good.”

“It
takes only a day or two to sail there,” Percival said. “Uncle
Jason lives right on the coast. We wouldn't have to go
into
the country. Simply stop at the
port, as scores of ships do every day, from everywhere.”

“We?”
Varian repeated. “If you think I'm hiring a vessel to travel to
Albania
with
a twelve-year-old boy, his father's sole heir
—”

“Papa
would pay you the reward, and you know he gave you plenty of money
for travel expenses and we've got lots of time.”

“No,
Percival. Go to bed.”

Percival
went to bed, but not until hours later, and Lord Edenmont, having
altogether forgotten the dark-eyed lady, sat up until dawn watching
the fire dwindle into smoldering embers.

STARING
UNHAPPILY INTO the darkness, Percival told himself he was very lucky
Lord Edenmont was not as perceptive as Mama. She would have grown
suspicious when she saw how much he'd eaten. She knew he overate when
he was particularly agitated.

He'd
gorged today because he knew he must tell Lord Edenmont a falsehood
about the black queen. He had to. Stolen weapons were on their way to
Albania, and no one but Uncle Jason could be entrusted with the
information, especially since Papa was involved. Unfortunately, one
couldn't write to Uncle Jason. He'd said that powerful men in Albania
had spies who regularly intercepted other peoples' letters.

Which
meant he must be told in person. Which meant deceiving Lord Edenmont.
Which had made Percival feel just like a criminal.

It
hardly counted that people said Lord Edenmont was wicked

even
that Uncle Jason thought so. His lordship had
always
been kind to Mama, and agreeable to
Percival himself. He wouldn't be agreeable ever again, Percival
thought regretfully, when he learned the truth. But that would happen
only if his lordship took the bait. Perhaps he wouldn't.

The
room's blackness was just beginning to fade when Percival heard Lord
Edenmont enter the adjoining bedchamber. Closing his eyes, Percival
told himself one
shouldn't
feel
sorry about trying to do one's duty, especially when hundreds of
lives might be saved. Besides, one couldn't expect Lord Edenmont to
remain about forever. Sooner or later they'd

reach
Venice, and his lordship would go away. On die other hand, if all
went well, Uncle Jason would soon be on his way to England with
Cousin Esme. That would more than make up for losing Lord Edenmont's
company. They'd be together. A family, just as Mama wanted.

This
reflection quieted Percival's distress,
radier
as
his mama's voice might have
done. Moments later, while the rising sun darted gold sparks across
the Adriatic, he fell asleep.

Tepelena,
Albania

Ismal,
the beautiful prince with the golden hair and blue jewel eyes,
reclined upon his divan and gazed thoughtfully at the ornate chess
piece in his hand. “Jason is not leaving?” he asked
Risto.

“Ali
has convinced him to stay and help quiet the unrest.”

“That's
disappointing. He's already captured an important store of weapons.
We can't afford continued interference.”

“You
want him dead, master?”

“That
would be politically unwise. The Red Lion is too well-loved, even by
those who support our efforts to oust Ali. I can't risk being
suspected of his murder. Fortunately, I was prepared for this
annoying setback.” Ismal smiled at his devoted servant and spy.
“You did better than you knew in persuading the Englishman to
give you this bit of 'collateral.'

Risto
bowed his head. “I'd hoped to bring you the entire set. It
would have been a fine addition to your treasures. Besides, Sir
Gerald's prices are excessive,” he added disapprovingly.

“I
want modern British weapons, and he's the only dependable source,”
Ismal answered with a shrug. “But what a fool he was to put
anything in writing, even in code. His hand is too distinctive.”

“He
believed me a stupid barbarian, master. He did not trust me to
remember the details correctly.”

“Most
convenient.” Ismal stroked the black queen's head. “I
kept the message, in case it might be of use. Now I think it will be
of great use.” Looking up at his servant, he went on, “I
want a party sent to abduct the Red Lion's daughter

immediately.
Jason will know he must accept the bride-price for her, and once
she's mine, he won't dare move against me.”

“He
may go to Ali.”

“I
doubt he'd risk her life in that way. But let him.” Ismal
turned the chess piece in his hand. “See that this is in Esme's
possession when she's taken. If Jason dares to make difficulties,
why, I shall say he's a traitor, and the chess piece will be my
proof. I'll advise Ali to consult the British, who'll have no
difficulty tracing the queen to the Red Lion's brother. No trouble
either, showing that the brother wrote the message. Ali knows the Red
Lion has been to Italy twice this year, to visit his family. Both my
cousin and the British will conclude Jason and his brotiier are
selling stolen arms for their own profit. Both governments will be
most displeased.”

His
blue eyes glittered as he handed Risto the chess piece. “Now
perhaps you see, Risto, how very powerful the queen can be

to
a player who knows how to use her.” Then he laughed.

Durrès

Esme
woke the instant she felt the hand upon her shoulder and sat bolt
upright. The room was still dark. “Papa?” she said to the
black shape beside her. Even as she uttered the name, she realized
the man wasn't Jason.

“It
is I, Bajo,” the figure said.

A
chill of anxiety seized her. “Where is Jason?”

There
was a long pause, then a sigh. Even before Bajo spoke, her heart was
pounding.

“I'm
sorry, child.”

“Where
is
he?”

“Ah,
little one.” Bajo laid his hand on her shoulder. “It is
bad news, little warrior. Be strong. Jason has been shot.”

No.
No!
Her
heart screamed, but her tongue was silent. Her hands tightened on the
blanket and she bit her lip, refusing to shriek and weep like a weak
female.

“We
were
...
ambushed
...
in the straits of Vijose,”
Bajo said. “They shot him in the back, and he fell over the
cliff, into the river far below. I thank God it was so. A quick
death

and
the river swept him away so the filthy assassins could not carry his
head to their lord in triumph.”

Jason.
Her strong, brave, loving father. Shot in the back like a thief
...
the icy torrent dragging his
body, dashing him against the cruel rocks
...
Esme closed her eyes and gritted
her teeth, and willed the racking grief into rage.

“What
assassins?” she demanded. “Who owes me blood?”

“Nay,
little one. The Red Lion's daughter does not seek blood,” he
reproached. “The killers are dead. I saw to that. But we've no
time for talk. Jason's murder was only the beginning, and you are in
great danger. Make haste,” he urged, pulling her from the bed.

Esme
yanked free of his grip and found she was shaking. With an effort she
made herself stand upright. She always slept fully dressed in her
male costume, her long gun within easy reach. One of Bajo's cousins
invariably kept watch outside, even when Jason was home, but she
didn't want to be caught unprepared if the town were suddenly
attacked.

“Why
haste? Where are we going?”

Bajo
picked up her head covering and thrust it into her hands. “North.
To Shkodra.” He lit a candle, then hustled about the room,
gathering up belongings and tossing them into a sack. Hardly aware of
what she did, Esme pulled on the woolen helmet and tucked her hair up
inside it, all the while staring at Bajo.

While
he packed, he went on talking nervously. “We were hurrying home
because Jason feared Ismal was planning to abduct you. Now there's no
doubt of it. Of course he'll lie

blame the murder on bandits. And
Ali will be too devastated to notice or care that Ismal steals a mere
female in the meantime.” Bajo paused. 'This is why we must make
haste. Don't even think about revenge. If you delay, you invite your
own shame. You can't wish to be concubine of the man who killed your
father.”

“I'll
tell the Pasha of Shkodra,” Esme said.
“He'll
help me. Ismal owes me
blood.”

“The
Pasha will help you out of the country,” Bajo answered. “That's
all. That's what Jason intended, and we'll do as he wished.”

He
met Esme's horrified gaze, then quickly looked away.

“No,”
she said, her voice choked. “You're not sending me to
England?
Alone?”

Bajo
hauled the sack over his shoulder and moved to the door, where he
paused. “It's a hard thing, I know, little warrior, but the
choice is plain. Either you show courage in this, or become Ismal's
slave
...
and
your father will have died for nothing.”

Later,
she told herself. Later, she'd have time to think, and she'd find a
way.

Without
another word, Esme collected the few things Bajo had missed, thrust
them into her small traveling pouch, grabbed her rifle, and followed
him out the door.

Minutes
later, they reached the
Durrës
harbor. It was nearly dawn, but
the shore was so thick with fog that the first tentative rays of
light were dull spots of pink in the heavy grey blanket. Bajo's boat
was moored discreetly some distance from the main pier. As they
neared the shore, Esme made out the outlines of a larger ship, one of
the
pielagos
which
so often called here. Rarely at this time of year, however, for they
were ill-equipped to withstand the autumn gales.

A
moment later, she discerned figures approaching in the mist. Though
they came on foot, she tensed and glanced at Bajo.

“Foreigners,”
he whispered.

BOOK: The Lion's Daughter
13.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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