Excerpt from The Lion's Daughter
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 through 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.
The next instant confirmed this, as the wind carried to her ears a hodgepodge of Albanian, Italian, and English.
“No…zoti...the boat, I beg you…master…kill me.”
As the figures neared, their voices became more distinct, and Esme heard the boyish tenor reply in cultivated English accents. “Nonsense. My uncle lives in this town.”
“Please, young master, only wait—”
“Here are some people. We can ask them.”
The pair was almost upon them. Though they seemed harmless enough, Esme let her bundle drop to the sand and took a firm grip on her rifle. Bajo, his stance alert, stood near, his rifle ready as well.
“Tongue-got-yet-ah,” the boyish voice called out.
He was only a child, an English child, with accents like her father’s.
“Tungjatjeta,” she cautiously answered the greeting.
Encouraged, the boy hurried up to them.
“Come away,” Bajo whispered to her. “We have no time.”
“He’s English,” Esme answered. In the next instant, she wondered if her ears had deceived her, for the boy’s garb closely resembled her own. He even had a pouch slung over his shoulder. Then, as he came closer, she felt certain she was dreaming. The weak light glinted upon hair the color of her father’s. She backed away as the boy stopped short, his gaze upon Bajo’s rifle. His fat, timid companion cowered several feet behind him.
“Oh, dear, we seem to have alarmed them,” the boy said. “How does one—” He cleared his throat. “Koosh sha-pee—ah—ah—Jason? I mean, it’s quite all right. He’s my uncle. Jason. My jah-jee. The Red Lion, you know—”
“Xhaxha?” Esme repeated, stunned. Jason—this child’s uncle? Incredulous, she stepped closer, all else forgotten as she stared at him. Her father’s hair, her father’s eyes…hers, as well.
Beside her, Bajo lowered his rifle. “He looks like your brother,” he said.
The boy was staring at Esme with equal astonishment.
“Who are you?” she demanded in English.
He stepped nearer, his gaze fixed on her face. “You speak English. Good heavens, you look—but Uncle Jason said she—you are a ‘she,’ aren’t you?” His face reddened. “Oh, dear. How rude of me. I am Percival Brentmor, Jason’s nephew.”
“Jason’s nephew,” Esme repeated numbly.
“Yes. How do you do?”
Esme felt an insane urge to giggle. Or cry. She didn’t know which. She was aware of a rumble, far away. But perhaps she was merely dizzy. Her ears seemed to be ringing.
“Percival,” she said, her mouth dry. “Jason’s nephew.”
“Yes. Are you—are you Esme?”
The rumbling grew louder. Bajo had turned away. He must have heard it, too.
Esme glanced from him to the lad who called himself Percival, Jason’s nephew. The boy was speaking rapidly, but she scarcely heard him. Her concentration was fixed on the building thunder. Not a storm. Riders.
Bajo raised his rifle.
“Go back,” she commanded harshly in English, pushing the boy away. “Go back to your ship—quickly, child. Now!”
“What is it? Bandits?”
“Go back!” she shouted. “Run, damn you!” She gave him another, harder push. This time he got the message and backed away. His alarmed companion was already running for the ship. The boy gave Esme one bewildered glance, then followed.
The pounding hoofbeats raced toward them, and Bajo was screaming at her to run. But the riders, coming from the east, were heading straight for the boy, who was still far from his own ship. If she and Bajo ran for their boat, her cousin would be caught in the crossfire.
She had barely thought it when the dull thunder broke into a roar and a dense, black cloud swept down from the road onto the beach. In the thick fog, they were a whirling mass of dark shapes—a score of horsemen at least. Ignoring Bajo’s frantic commands, Esme raised her rifle and fired, drawing their attention to her. Answering shots flew over her head.
She raced toward an overturned boat on the beach, and saw other forms approaching. Bajo’s comrades. A bullet whizzed past her. She dove for the shelter of the boat and hurriedly reloaded.
The explosions outside jolted Varian from a sound sleep and brought him almost instantly to his feet. A glance about the cabin showed no sign of Percival. Varian yanked his shirt over his head, jerked on his trousers and boots, snatched up his pistols, and raced to the deck.
On the shore, the light-streaked fog shrouded a writhing mass of horses and men and a cacophony of war cries and rifle fire. He scrambled onto the pier and dashed toward the battleground.
“Percival!” he bellowed.
As he leapt from the pier to the sand, he heard a high-pitched cry and turned toward it. Half a dozen riders were bearing down upon one slight figure running clumsily across the sand. A feeble ray of early sun broke for a fleeting instant through the haze and lit a crown of dark red hair.
His heart thundering as loudly as the deadly hooves closing in on the boy, Varian aimed and fired. He saw a horse crumple to the ground, even as he aimed and fired his other pistol. With shaking fingers, he began to reload. There was a deafening noise close by, then something crashed. A lightning bolt of pain shot through him…then darkness.
Gently, Esme wiped away the sand from the unconscious man’s face. It would be more efficient simply to empty the bucket over his head, but that might wake him too suddenly, and the blow he’d suffered would cause sufficient pain as it was.
The ship rocked, and the water sloshed in the bucket beside her, splashing her trousers. They were soaked already, though, scratchy with sand and salt. Still, that was a negligible discomfort, her only physical one. Some of the others had not fared so well; two of Bajo’s cousins were dead, and several friends wounded. Townsfolk had quickly taken up the latter and would care for them.
They’d not yet collected the six marauders’ corpses when Bajo had ordered her to the pielago. He’d thrown the Englishman over his shoulder and, deaf to her arguments, had seen them both safely aboard and ordered the captain to sail south, to Corfu. Then Bajo had set off to rescue the boy…her cousin.
Esme glared down at the haughty face beside her knees. What fiend had led the man here, of all places, with a young boy—unguarded, unarmed?
Actually, the Englishman’s face was that of a fiend, albeit a coldly beautiful one, she thought, gazing at the dark, curling tendrils that straggled over his high forehead. Her wary scrutiny traveled slowly over black, high-arched eyebrows and black lashes, down the long, imperious nose, and past the full, sculptured mouth to the clean, angular jaw. An arrogant face. Petro, the dragoman who’d been with the boy, had said this man was an English lord.
Esme’s glance moved to the hand that lay over his flat belly. Long fingers, the nails manicured and clean but for a few grains of Durres beach imbedded there. Not a callous, scar, or scratch marred their elegant perfection. She looked at her own tanned hands, hard and strong, then at her stained, gritty trousers. Her belly tightened with anxiety. It was the way she always felt when she encountered her father’s countrymen: the same sense of inadequacy, the same tense anticipation of their barely masked distaste and scorn. Some looked right through her, as though she were invisible, and sometimes that was worse than the more open condescension. She knew they viewed her as little better than an animal.
Those she had met before were only soldiers. This man was a lord. Even now he seemed to sneer at her.
His eyes, she decided as she returned her gaze to his face, would be as cold and hard as stone.
It didn’t matter, she told herself. His opinion was of no consequence. She threw the rag into the bucket, angrily wrung it out…then paused, her hand inches from his face as his mouth worked soundlessly and his eyes slowly opened.
Her heart skittered like a frightened mare. Gray eyes, but not like stone. Gray smoke. As they focused with painful slowness, the rigid countenance softened into life, and she drew the cloth away, her hand trembling.
It was the face of a dark angel. For one giddy moment, she thought it was Lucifer himself, hurled down a moment ago by a wrathful Almighty.
“Percival,” he murmured. “Thank G—” He blinked. “Who are you?”
The low, hoarse voice was smoke, too, enervating as opium. Esme drew a sharp breath and told herself to wake up.
“I’m called Zigur,” she said.