Three weeks later
"You know, my friend, you might have saved the king and everyone else a great deal of effort and worry had you simply said you were determined to kill yourself one way or another." Outfitted in chain mail armor from a morning spent in training, James Logan strode up to where Sebastian stood at the top of a wooden ladder, his bare back baking in the midday desert sun as he set a large brick into place on the partially reconstructed city wall. "A thousand able men employed to rebuild Ascalon's defenses, yet here you are, the king's right arm, half-dead but a fortnight past and out here working as hard as any man. You must have been drained of all good sense along with the blood you lost in camp last month."
With an exhaled curse that brought a twinge of pain from the healing wound at his side, Sebastian pivoted his head to look down at Logan. "I didn't come to Palestine to die," he said as he spread some mortar onto the wall with his trowel and reached for another brick. "No more than I came here to sit idle in a sultan's confiscated palace, supervising repairs to a city that will likely be razed by Saladin before we lay the last brick."
Logan chuckled as he positioned himself near the base of the ladder, leaning his shoulder against the stone wall and grinning up at Sebastian from under arched chestnut-colored brows. "The king had to know the Black Lion of England would bristle at the notion of being caged--even behind gilded bars. Like it or nay, my friend, those were his orders when he left to march on Darum."
"I don't like it," Sebastian confirmed in a growl. "I came here to fight. As it seems I am unable to do that at present, I will at least make myself useful. Why don't you do likewise and pass me another bucket of mortar while you're down there?" He scooped out the last of the thick clay muck, then dropped the empty vessel into the Scot's waiting hands. "In any event, I mean to return to campaign as soon as the king is back from Darum. After nearly a month of inactivity here in Ascalon, I expect I can tolerate another couple of days."
"Then you haven't heard?" At Sebastian's answering frown, Logan blew out a sigh. "Richard has decided to delay his return. He goes to the Valley of the Wells, to seize a castle held by one of Saladin's emirs. I learned of it myself just this morning. Seems one of the men got the news from a supply ship that met the king down the coast a few days ago."
Sebastian cursed roundly. "Has he gone mad?" Ignoring the stares of several workers who turned their heads in his direction, he threw his muddy trowel to the ground, then came down off his ladder to confer with his lieutenant. "We should be saving our energies for Jerusalem, not squandering our few remaining troops on more petty raids and caravan robberies."
Logan shrugged. "You'll get no argument out of me. But with so much wealth to be gained from plunder, mayhap Richard has forgotten that his reason for coming to Palestine was to liberate Jerusalem from the infidels."
"He also forgets that his arrogance is winning him no esteem," Sebastian said, retrieving his tunic from the ladder rung he had draped it over earlier that morning. He shrugged into the airy white linen shirt, too fast, for in his haste, a jolt of renewed pain sliced through him. If he ever caught the devil who sliced him open that night, he would take great pleasure in returning the favor. Slowly. "The king is making powerful enemies on both sides of this war," he continued, slanting Logan a confidential glance. "At least one of those enemies means to see him dead."
"'Twas Richard's opinion the attack that night was an isolated incident--a crazed Muslim acting on his own volition, was his guess. He doesn'a believe he's in any specific danger."
Sebastian scoffed. "Neither did Conrad of Montferrat until the night two assassins, dressed as monks, accosted him on the street and stuck their daggers in his heart." He picked up his sword and baldric and began to buckle the wide leather belt around his waist.
Frustrated from a combination of heat, thirst, and now this news of the king's latest military whim, Sebastian abandoned his work and started for the well at the center of the city square. Logan fell in behind him. "'Tis rumored that Conrad's murder was bought with Richard's coin. Leastwise, that was the tale the assassins told upon their capture."
"A tale, all right," Sebastian replied. "Conrad and Richard were hardly enamored of each other, but they had finally come to terms. I was there when the king decided that Conrad was to be his replacement in Palestine should affairs in England call him home before Jerusalem was secured. He's gained nothing with Conrad's death, save the added knowledge that the crusade's success or failure now rests solely on him."
"Aye, but I wager the infidels found much cause to celebrate, having one less Christian leader to contend with," Logan suggested wryly. He pitched his voice low as he and Sebastian neared the crowded square. "You don't suspect Saladin's had a hand in any of this, do you? Could he have conspired with the Old Man of the Mountain to see both Conrad and Richard eliminated?"
Sebastian considered the idea for a moment, his attention focused on the throng of English soldiers and turbaned Syrian laborers taking rest and refreshment at the well. "Assassination seems too cowardly a tactic for a man of Saladin's honor," he answered, then shook his head. "However, the sultan has been pushed into a corner many times, and if we are to start counting King Richard's enemies, I warrant no one can be above suspicion."
At the officers' approach, a young boy hopped down from the ledge of the well where he had been seated, serving water to the other men. He filled two cups from the spring-fed reservoir, then rushed forth to offer them to Sebastian and Logan, his smile eager, dark eyes shining. Halfway across the small distance, he suddenly froze.
A woman's scream rent the air.
It sounded from within the main avenue, a wide street that led to what was once an opulent Syrian palace, and now the nearly deserted headquarters of Richard's high-ranking officers. The woman screamed again, shrieking a single word that curdled the blood of both Frank and Saracen alike . . .
Sebastian and Logan set off at once, skirting the crowd of dazed workers to reach the mouth of the avenue. "Shut the gates," Sebastian shouted over his shoulder to a knot of soldiers who rushed to join him. "No one leaves the city!"
Boots pounding on the cobble-paved street, he and the Scot raced toward the trouble. They did not have to get within a few yards of the palace to see what had happened. A frantic servant woman stood outside, jabbering hysterically and flailing her hands. At her feet in a pool of blood lay a Christian knight, one of the guards who had been posted at the palace gates when Sebastian left that morning to relieve his boredom by working on the city wall. The man's throat had been slashed--a savage attack delivered upon him not moments before, for his blood was slick and crimson, and still seeping out of his wound.
"Did you see who did this?" he demanded of the woman, seizing her by the shoulders. She feebly shook her head, then dissolved into another fit of wailing. Sebastian released her, turning his head toward the crowd filling the mouth of the avenue. Several prayers were murmured to Allah, but the majority of onlookers seemed capable only of gaping at the scene in mute shock. "Did anyone see who did this?"
A few heads uselessly shook in denial. Sebastian ground out a curse. He was about to turn away when something--or, rather, someone--in the crowd caught his eye. Enveloped in the knot of stunned spectators was a man of slight, wiry build. He might not have been noticeable amongst the others at all, for he was garbed as any other Syrian laborer: the same long, white tunic, the same turban covered his head. But what separated this man in Sebastian's mind was the fact that his gaze was not on the fallen knight . . . but on Sebastian instead.
He stared at him with piercing black eyes, cold eyes, lit with what seemed to be a morbid sort of amusement. Sebastian frowned and started toward him. Was this the same man who attacked him that night in camp--the same assassin who might have killed the king? He could not be sure. But this man had killed the palace guard; Sebastian could see the truth of it in the chilling, almost mocking, gaze peering back at him.
"You, there," he hailed in Arabic. "Come away from the others. I would speak to you."
The man smiled, but did not move to oblige. Several people around him began to back away, as if suddenly sensing there was evil in their midst.
"What is it?" Logan asked, when Sebastian's hand went to the hilt of his sword.
"There, in the crowd. That man. Do you see him?" Sebastian started forward, and the grinning Arab took a step back, slipping farther into the throng. "The bastard's going to run."
The words were scarcely out of Sebastian's mouth before the man did precisely that. He gave a taunting chuckle and then he was gone, ducking out of sight, his white-turbaned head blending in with the rest of the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd.
Sebastian lunged into a run, pushing his way through the tangle of stupefied laborers and servants. Logan was at his heels in no time, shouting orders to the handful of English soldiers to block off all exits from the city. A sea of turbans and white tunics spread out in all directions, a blurring expanse of colorless shapes, almost blinding in the intense light of the desert sun. Sebastian waded into the crowd, scanning th...