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London, July 1172
Rowan de Montvieux was in a foul mood.
Not only had he been ill beyond belief on the journey from LeHavre, but he was not at his intended destination. Indeed, the last Rowan had heard, the Thames was not in Ireland.
Which meant that he must endure another sea voyage, no doubt even less pleasant than this last, and that he must do so immediately in order to win the challenge he had accepted from his brothers.
Nay, he was not in a fine mood. He strode through the tangle of merchants on the docks, retrieving his horse and finding his squire Thomas with no small effort. They badgered him from every side, these hagglers with their shoddy goods, and he braced himself against thieves in the crowd. He deigned to purchase some meat pies from one merchant who looked more reputable than most.
But what he really needed was a measure of ale. Aye, then some song, and a solid measure of the sorry excuse for food in this country warm in his belly. Then blissful sleep. That would restore his interest in bucking his brothers' expectations. Rowan loved a challenge--at least when he was feeling hale--and the more desperate the stakes, the better.
An Irish heiress! For the love of God, what had possessed him to take such a dare? On a morn like this, with the taste of his own bile ripe in his throat, Rowan doubted he could charm even the most ancient and desperate crone alive.
Or that he wanted to.
"Oho! A fine knight just into port!" a slavemonger cried. The man was unshaven and unkempt, his dark hair hanging in his eyes and more than one tooth missing from his mouth. "I have just the wench for you, sir, and she is a bargain onthis day of days." He leaned closer to whisper, his breath even more foul than Rowan's own. "I shall make you a special deal, sir, on account of your knightly status and recent arrival."
Rowan growled a dismissal and made to push past the man, his gaze drifting disinterestedly to the woman in question.
And then he stopped to stare.
'Twas not the bright red gold of her hair that captured his attention, nor even that her tresses were cropped short. 'Twas not the deep hue of her tan, nor even how that tan made her eyes appear ethereally blue. 'Twas not the ripeness of her breasts fairly spilling from her chemise, not even that she wore a boy's chausses, which hid none of her copious charms.
Nay, 'twas that she feigned insouciance nearly as well as he.
"She is not much of a lay, if that is what you seek," the seller confided in an undertone. He leaned closer to whisper. "Indeed, a corpse might serve a man better."
The woman did not even blink. Her stance remained unchanged, her arms folded across her chest, her bare feet braced against the ground. She was nearly as filthy as her owner, a rough length of rope knotted around her neck and tethering her to that man.
Rowan swallowed as he noted the mark of a chafe there. "Indeed," he said mildly. "I would have naught with which to compare." The man looked quizzically at him and Rowan lifted his brows. "Having never been intimate with a corpse." His squire chuckled at the jest, but the woman's steady stare did not waver.
The would-be seller, though, grimaced and turned away, muttering something uncomplimentary under his breath and giving the woman's rope a savage tug. She made no protest, obviously accustomed to his abuse, and strolled behind him with her head as high as a queen's. Rowan could not help but watch them go.
He imagined the man taking his pleasure with this woman, his sweaty bulk heaving atop her as she stared fixedly at the rafters. His stomach rolled mutinously and, though he stood on dry land, Rowan felt ill again.
"How much?" he called impulsively.
"Three silver deniers," the man cried, spinning to jab a finger at Rowan. "Two for you!"
"Outrageous," Thomas murmured.
'Twas a shocking price but Rowan found himself digging for the coins. "Margaux will be proud of me," he muttered. He fired a glance at Thomas. "Be sure to tell her of this. I may well be in need of her favor."
Thomas nodded. A mere heartbeat later, Rowan's purse was lighter and he held the end of the distasteful rope in his hand. The seller marched away, whistling.
But the woman surveyed him with the same cold manner. If Rowan had thought she might thank him for winning her release from that creature, he was clearly mistaken.
And that irked him. He had just bought a slave, for no good reason, a slave he did not want, expending coin he would have preferred to keep or at least spend on some amusement.
She could at least appreciate the gesture!
"For a smile and a word of thanks, I would release you," he offered pointedly, and her gaze flicked over him.
"Gratitude for paying him for his crimes?" she asked. "You will not have that from me, nor a smile."
"A smile would cost you naught."
"'Twould cost me that very freedom you promise," she retorted dryly. Her eyes narrowed. "Or have you not noted the fine company we keep?"
'Twas true enough that the docks were swarming with unsavory characters, more than one of whom was making a thorough study of what filled her chausses.
"'Tis your own fault for wearing such garb," Rowan felt compelled to observe.
The hint of a smile crossed her lips. "The embroidery on each and every one of my kirtles is being mended."
Thomas laughed, then looked to Rowan and stifled himself. Rowan fixed the woman with a dark glance, not liking that she made the jests instead of he.
His look did not seem to trouble her in the least, which was doubly vexing.
"At some point," he said sternly, "you donned that garb of your own choice."
Now she did smile, although the expression was more sad than might have been expected. "'Twas a whimsy of long ago and far away."
"Why?" Rowan repeated, determined to have one answer from her.
Her smile disappeared. "I thought to disguise myself as a boy."
"You? A boy?" Rowan laughed. He could have done naught else. "A man would have to be blind to doubt your gender!"
The woman glared at him and Rowan felt a measure of pride for stirring some response from her. "I thank you for observing my foolishness. I might have doubted it otherwise, given my current exalted status."
Thomas snickered even as Rowan's smile was snatched away.
"'Tis the mark of maidens in a convent to imagine that they can deceive the world, simply by donning boy's chausses and cropping their hair . . ." Rowan's voice faded as he stared at her in sudden comprehension. "You speak too well to have been raised in a gutter. Who are you?"
The woman's eyes flashed so quickly that Rowan almost missed the telltale sign that he had found a truth. "I am no one," she declared.