Book #1 in the Queen’s Guard Series
Published by: Medallionpress.com
Release Date: May 1, 2012 – eBook only
In 1147, Queen Eleanor and King Louis VII traverse to Jerusalem for the Second Crusade. Along with her fancy bedding and wine, the wily, young queen brings five lovely and talented women—spies identified by a signature garden scent. Among them is the beautiful widow Isabella de Lacey, aka Violet, whose duty is to infiltrate Emperor Manuel’s inner circle and skillfully extract information. Will he aid the queen’s cousin or betray the alliance for one with the Turks? To find out Isabella must woo the emperor’s man, Raoul, whose soul is as black as his eyes and passion both terrifies and captivates her. Set in Constantinople, this historical romance is the first in a series about the clandestine network of female spies beholden only to the powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine.
The relentless October sun beat down on Isabella de Lacey’s head, and for a fleeting moment she wished she’d never left France. Though barely twenty, she felt as old as Methuselah. Oui, she was a dried, tired husk who couldn’t spare the moisture to cry.
In the past four months she’d traversed France, Hungary, Bulgaria and now Greece with King Louis and his strong army of Crusaders as a member of the Queen’s Guard. Bella squinted ahead to see if she could find the King’s Standard, but the limp banners were indistinguishable from her position so far back in line.
She and the other ladies in the queen’s retinue had discovered crusading to be less of a romantic adventure to save the Holy Land from the heathen Turks, and more of a pain in the derriere. Adventure promised; blisters gained.
Shifting uncomfortably in her saddle, Bella thought longingly of a violet-scented bath and a cup of Bordeaux wine. She licked her dry lips and urged her mare onward, letting her mind wander to past pleasures. Honeyed almonds. Crisp, tart apple slices. Whispers with a dream lover beneath the oak tree in Queen Eleanor’s castle garden.
A familiar masculine voice intruded on her thoughts. “Not long now, Bella,” Jonathon said as he rode toward her from the front of the caravan.
“You lie, monsieur.” Isabella attempted a smile, but it tugged at the sensitive skin around her mouth. Grit crusted her brows and lashes, yet Jonathon seemed impervious to the dirt. Not a single smudge of road dust marred his handsome flesh.
She glanced at his lean, muscled form as he turned his mount, taking his place at her right. His blond hair shone in the sun, and his hazel eyes crinkled with laugh lines at the corners. “I would never lie to a lady,” the knight said in such exaggerated chivalric tones she laughed despite her dry throat. There was much to admire about Jonathon.
“What news, then?” Bella’s stomach tightened with anticipation. Adventure was one thing; danger another. She’d walk if it would hasten the end of this journey. “Are we close?”
On behalf of the Pope, Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux had preached for France to take up arms against the Turks so convincingly that it was no surprise King Louis and Queen Eleanor had agreed to wear the red cross and gather an army of vassals and soldiers to save Edessa.
What was surprising was how fast she had gotten caught up in the whirlwind of it all, pledging her loyalty to Jerusalem and God. And above all, to Queen Eleanor. She would give her life for the queen, although Bella hoped it wouldn’t come to that. At the moment, I haven’t the strength to save a kitten from drowning.
“Oui,” Jonathon said. “We’re close. Breathe deep, and you will catch the scent of ocean water instead of foul corpses.”
Isabella took a hesitant sniff. Their army had the misfortune to follow the land route behind Emperor Conrad III. The devastation the German Crusaders had wrought left the inhabitants of the Eastern Roman Empire wary of soldiers, no matter what banner they bore. Some Greek towns had barred the French Crusaders completely, while others charged exorbitant amounts for what food and water they would sell, not honoring the even exchange rate promised by Emperor Manuel Comnenus.
Worse, the Greek natives had killed straggling German soldiers, and left the bodies unburied by the roadside as a sign of their contempt. Queen Eleanor, during her evening wine with her ladies, said that the king’s chaplain, Odo de Deuil, feared sickness, and possible treachery. Yet King Louis remained faithful as he led them toward Constantinople and Emperor Manuel, who he hoped would remain an ally.
“Doubtless the emperor has cleared the stench away from the city walls,” Bella said. “Did King Louis send someone ahead to announce our arrival?”
“No need. Just wait until you see the city, Bella. The towers on the wall are so high the guards have most likely been watching our caravan since yesterday.”
Isabella shielded her eyes and stared toward the front of the slow moving line as if a miracle would appear in the form of shady trees and a picnic. “Would that we were there already.”
“My beautiful petite belle,” Jonathon whispered for her ears alone, sending a delicious shiver up her tired spine. “Your courage will soon be rewarded with a bath, fresh food and drink, and a real bed.”
“I’m not brave,” she scoffed. “Determined, perhaps.” Her life in the preceding years hadn’t been about beauty or courage but survival. She found it ironic to be praised for what amounted to a roll of destiny’s dice.
“You guard the queen with skill, and beauty.”
Bella glanced at Jonathon and acknowledged the gallant knight’s pretty words with a slight smile. “I am one of five, and we but complement the queen’s strength.” Before meeting Eleanor, Bella had honed her ability to hit any target in her deceased husband’s dungeon, where she’d thrown rocks at mice before they could nibble her toes. Now she proudly carried a quiver of arrows at her back.
“Calling you tenacious isn’t very romantic,” her attentive knight teased.
Bella’s hand immediately went to her dry cheek as she remembered the quick kiss he’d placed there a month before – but not since. “Romance?” She fidgeted in her saddle. “This is not the place for it.” Besides, she’d been given a duty more important than playing at love.
“Ah, but does the queen not advise chivalrous behavior at all times?” Jonathon leaned closer, so that his leg brushed hers. “A knight must always honor his lady fair.”
Bella decided a subject change was prudent. Jonathon’s words led to confusion, when she had need of a clear head. “Why do you think the king is so certain Emperor Manuel can be trusted? If the king’s advisors seem suspicious, should he not listen? What will happen if Manuel has changed his mind? After what Emperor Conrad has done to his country, he could imprison us, or worse, have us killed.”
“Stop worrying, pretty one.” Jonathon briefly took her hand. “Emperor Manuel is renowned for his diplomacy and generosity.” He snapped and smiled. “Do you know that he lets tamed leopards roam freely inside the city?”
Bella sat up for the first time all day, the bones in her spine popping as she straightened. “I don’t believe you.” Queen Eleanor had told them of Emperor Manuel Comnenus and his opulent tastes. The queen counted on his desire for beautiful things to get them information for the king, as well as for her Uncle Raymond, Prince of Antioch. “What if they attack?”
““Who attacks?” Mamie of Rou asked as her brown horse trotted to Bella’s left side. “The Germans? The Turks? I’m almost ready to surrender.”
“Leopards,” Bella laughed, accidentally taking too deep a breath. She coughed on the hot, dry air. “Mamie, have you any wine left? Mine is finished, and Jonathon has not asked after my welfare since we broke bread at dawn.” She poked his arm so he would know she jested.
“Had I known you were thirsty, I would have wrestled a goat herder to the ground and stolen his water skin, just for you, Bella.” Jonathon managed a look that was both contrite and charming as he patted his saddle roll. “To my sorrow, I have no water or wine to offer.”
Bella’s lips curved in a half smile. Their flirtations stayed well within the acceptable courtly love boundaries of shared poetry and the occasional lingering touch of his hand—and that one stolen kiss. Eleanor’s teachings on honor and chivalry had gilded many a knight’s tongue – though Bella stayed chaste, desire teased but never woken.
Bella owed Queen Eleanor fealty as a woman of Aquitaine, but their tie went beyond that. Eleanor had saved Bella from a second ancient, flaccid and abusive husband after the first one had cocked up his toes during dinner at King Louis’ castle. Sweeping Bella into her personal retinue, Eleanor proclaimed her protection and Louis agreed to leave Bella’s small fortune alone.
If any woman knew how to forge her way in a man’s world, it was Eleanor. Queen of France, Duchess of Aquitaine, she had an instinct for intrigue, passion and secrets. She was sharing some of what she knew with the ladies in her private guard.
“Remember,” Jonathon said, moving as close to her as his horse would allow, “that the Empress Irene has been sending letters to the queen, expressing her joy at our arrival. Surely she wouldn’t bother if she were not sincere.”
“Perhaps.” The queen always brought out letters of good cheer when the army was at its lowest ebb. Wily woman. And now Bella saw plots thickening where before she would see only a kind gesture. Royalty, Eleanor, and intrigue all went hand in hand.
Mamie chuckled, her gap-toothed smile wide as she unhooked the wine horn from her saddle. “Bella, I suspect that you like to worry. As soon as we get settled, we shall find Fay and beg her for some of her rosemary lotion. It relaxes you, from the outside in.” She lifted her rounded shoulders and let them drop with a sigh. “A delicious tingling feeling all over your skin.”
Bella accepted the wine with a hurried, “Bless you.” She tipped her head back and drank, the warm liquid eased her throat. Handing it back, she couldn’t help but notice that Mamie’s red hair had escaped the confines of braids, and bright locks of copper stuck to her damp cheeks. Her green eyes sparkled with mischief.
Men swarmed around her like bees to honey. Mamie made no secret of her liking for male flesh, and since she was thrice widowed, Eleanor usually looked the other way. The slightly older lady had become a treasured friend as well as confidante.
Bella smiled her thanks. “Fay and Catherine are riding with the queen, but have either of you seen Sarah?”
Jonathon quickly shook his head no, as did Mamie.
“I looked for her after this morning’s prayers, but couldn’t find her.” Sarah wasn’t sleeping well on the journey. Though she never complained, Bella noticed the dark circles beneath her eyes. They were opposites in every way. While Bella contained her thoughts, tall, blonde Sarah spoke her mind and apologized later. Bella admired her friend’s confidence.
“I’m sure she’s fine.” Mamie reached to touch Bella’s arm.
“Look!” Jonathon pointed ahead. “Do you see?”
The high walls of Constantinople loomed in the distance, and her heart raced beneath her breast as she recalled the true reason she had risked everything to come on Crusade.
I, Isabella de Lacey, pledge my life to Eleanor, Queen of France, Duchess of Aquitaine, Countess of Poitou.
Silently renewing the oath she’d proudly sworn during the secret moonlit ceremony, Bella’s resolve firmed. The exhaustion of four months of travel fell from her as if she shed her skin.
After a nice, long bath and buckets of watered wine, and mayhap a soak in rosemary lotion, she would be ready to commit her first act as the queen’s spy.
Her target was a man named Raoul Laskaris, Emperor Manuel’s fiercest advisor. Bella was chosen because, according to Queen Eleanor’s sources, Raoul had a penchant for petite, dark haired ladies with shy smiles.
I’m coming, my lord. I’m coming. And you will tell me all you know of your emperor, and what he really wants from our king.
Raoul Laskaris kicked the bitch from his bed, ignoring her yelp of indignation. She stood, her fair skin bearing the marks of their sex play.
“Coin is on the table. You know the way out.” He deepened his voice to a growl, ensuring that she’d leave all the faster. “Go.” A whore’s business was to see to a man’s lust, and then get the hell out of his sight. Not snuggle while a man had his eyes closed. Raoul didn’t stir from the mattress until she’d slammed the door behind her. Then he arose, washed, and dressed in thin black leggings and a black tunic.
Black matched his mood.
His liege, Emperor Manuel, had ordered him to greet King Louis and his army. Pah. Raoul kept his hand on the hilt of his sword as he strode down the hall of the Imperial Palace. If he had his way then he’d feed the French army to the Turks. Just as he’d suggested they do with the ill-mannered Germans.
Emperor Conrad might be his country’s leader, but he was no leader of men. Not only had his army raped the Greek countryside, they’d vandalized Emperor Manuel’s hunting lodge. Three days had barely been enough time to get the residence cleaned for the French.
Raoul wouldn’t have bothered.
He pushed through the heavy doors leading outside. Emperor Manuel stood impatiently on the top stair, a true Roman in his robes of purple and gold. To his left stood John Axuch, Grand Domestic, and commander of the emperor’s armies.
Manuel pointed to his right. “Where have you been? I told you I would have you at my side to welcome the French king and queen. You, Raoul, are not welcoming. Your visage says Death.”
John, dressed in thin beige linen, grinned. “Perhaps they’ll leave screaming for mercy at one glance of Raoul’s scowling face.”
Raoul jerked his head at John, but kept his eyes on Manuel. He’d argued loudly to be left out of the ceremonial kiss of peace, and lost. He didn’t deserve, and didn’t want, to be raised high. “Our emperor forgets he needs our sword arms more than he needs our false smiles and pretty words.”
Manuel huffed. “I don’t forget. Why else would you stand here?” The emperor’s shoulders relaxed as he gestured at the royal couple coming toward them. “What do you think? Eleanor’s beauty is legendary.”
“She is a woman,” Raoul said dismissively, eyeing the auburn-haired female from head to toe. She wore thick robes of ivory and gold, and her heels clicked against the stone of each step as she and her husband climbed upward. Her hand lay possessively on King Louis’ forearm. “How old is she? Twenty five? And leading her altar boy of a husband around by the balls.”
In fact, the king barely had a beard, and Raoul could hear his sharp breaths as if he were already tired from the climb. Raoul had no patience for inbred royalty. His wild pride could only serve a man he felt was worthy.
A man like Emperor Manuel.
Manuel narrowed his eyes, and Raoul wondered if he’d gone too far. “Be careful what you say,” his liege warned. “Louis had thought to go into the church, before his older brother Philip died and left him to be king. Now, it is time to greet our guests.”
“Quit frowning,” John chuckled low. “We can’t have the queen fainting at the sight of you.”
“I don’t frown or scowl,” Raoul said, looking away from the queen and facing the people in the courtyard below. “Are those women sitting astride as men? Dressed as warriors, by Christ.”
Manuel turned and raised a forbidding brow at Raoul. “Do not dishonor me,” he whispered, all Emperor in purple robes and a will of iron.
Raoul’s jaw tightened at the reprimand. He’d pledged Manuel his life, and his life he would gladly give. But honeyed words to a king who allowed women to dress as men, and carry weapons? He exhaled, and forced his hand away from his sword.
It was his honor to serve as Manuel’s personal man of affairs. Whatever his liege needed, Raoul made it happen. With that in mind, he allowed himself to look out upon the dozens of titled crusaders without showing his anger at their stupidity.
Riled into action by a mad priest to wrest Edessa back from the Turks, King Louis, and surprisingly, Emperor Conrad, had all taken the cross and vowed victory as they passed over Emperor Manuel’s lands without thought to the damage they would cause. Raoul swallowed bitterly, recalling the pillaged towns outside the city’s walls.
If the Franks thought they could behave so badly within the city, they’d soon be taught a different lesson. Raoul scanned the mounted party, his gaze pausing at a plump red head with long braids wearing leggings and a tunic, with a short sword at her hip. Her hair was unveiled. Sacrilege.
Next to the brazen wench was a petite raven haired beauty, who at least had the decency to cover her locks with a scrap of linen. Her beige tunic was hemmed with green and purple flowers, and her snug leather leggings showed off shapely calves.
Raoul shifted from one foot to the next. This was why women belonged in a harem, by God. They were a distraction to a man when he needed to be clear headed for war.
At that moment, the beauty looked up and Raoul was struck by the violet blue color of her almond shaped eyes. His heart beat faster as she quickly, demurely, lowered her gaze. A woman, then, who knew her place. His ire returned as he noticed the quiver of arrows at her back.
John cleared his throat, and Raoul realized that Emperor Manuel stared at him. As did King Louis, and Queen Eleanor.
Red faced, Raoul bowed from the waist. “Welcome to Constantinople.”
And though the fair queen made no untoward expression, it seemed to Raoul that she was laughing.
His gut knotted. Before the month was out, the French would learn how a real man ruled.