Stephanie de Milly was not an attractive woman, and she had no illusions about why Miles de Plancy had sought her hand in marriage. In that he was no different than her first husband, the younger Humphrey de Toron, to whom her father had given her at a tender age. She was the heiress to a valuable barony, and her father had chosen not the man most pleasing to his immature daughter, but the man most likely to hold on to what he’d gained and held. With young Humphrey it had not been the boy himself, but rather his formidable father, Humphrey II, Baron de Toron and Constable of the Kingdom, who had pleased her father. But the young Humphrey had died in a stupid accident, leaving her a teenage widow with a infant son—who was instantly snatched away by her father-in-law, who wanted the boy (another Humphrey) raised in his own castle.
Meanwhile her father had chosen a second husband for her, Miles de Plancy. Miles had been twenty-three years her senior when he married her, and she had been sixteen. But Miles had been a good husband to her. He had not coddled her or courted her or treated her like a fragile doll. Instead he had recognized that she was as tough as he was, and as fiercely dedicated to holding her father’s barony as he was. She had been his ally, his partner, his trusted lieutenant. . . .
It had been a stormy marriage at times. They had fought—even thrown things at one another, when their wills clashed—but they had respected one another. Stephanie had thrived in that marriage, gratified that her word was obeyed as alacritously as her husband’s, exhilarated by being entrusted with the defense of her castles when her husband was away, and proud to be called a “she-devil” and other insulting names by their enemies. The Saracens hated a woman who could fight more than anything else on earth, she thought with pride.
At twenty-six, Stephanie de Milly was taller and stronger than many men. She had flesh on her bones, and her detractors accused her of having hair on her chest as well, but nothing had prepared her for the news that her husband had been cut down by an assassin on the streets of Jerusalem. She flatly refused to believe the first messenger. “This is a trick!” she protested, jumping to her feet. “Tripoli thinks he can trick me into surrendering my castles!”
The second messenger fared no better. “Get out of my sight!” she screamed at her husband’s squire, sent to fetch her to Jerusalem for her husband’s interment. “You are a traitor!”
It was not until Sir Henri d’Ibelin showed her her husband’s wedding ring that she understood he was truly dead. Henri knelt before her in the solar of Montreal and simply held up the ring, tears streaming down his face.
Most men did not wear wedding rings, but Stephanie had given Miles this ring with the crest of the Millys on it to remind him that he held Oultrejourdain through her. She’d underestimated the size of his fingers, and he had been unable to jam it over his knuckle at the wedding ceremony, but he’d pocketed it and had it enlarged shortly afterwards. From the day he put it on, he never took it off again.
Stephanie had stared at the ring proffered by the young knight, and felt as if a violent earthquake had brought the castle walls tumbling down around her. Miles dead? “How?” she gasped out, reaching for the ring. “How?”
“It was an assassin, madame,” Henri told her, relating how a merchant from the weapons market had stepped into Oultrejourdain’s path as he started up the steps into his townhouse, and held him back.
“My husband would never allow that!” Stephanie de Milly protested.
“He was annoyed and turned to hit him with his free hand. In that instant the merchant took the very knife he had been selling and stabbed him. Four times. He was a professional, madame,” Henri told the widow, who stared at him with wide eyes and open mouth. “Any of the wounds would have been fatal on their own. The assassin went for the stomach, the liver, and the kidney.”
Oultrejourdan’s widow was clutching her husband’s ring, cutting her fingers on the rough edges where his men had cut the ring from her husband’s finger to bring it to her. She did not notice that blood was smearing the front of her dress. “Why?” she asked. “Miles had no quarrel with the Assassins. Miles has even given them safe passage on occasion. . . .”
Henri swallowed and took a deep breath. “My lady.”
The widow did not hear him; she was gazing, dazed, at her bloody hands and the ring in them.
She looked up at him, her eyes blank.
“My lady, I don’t think it was the Assassins.”
She frowned. “What are you babbling about? You said yourself it was a professional. Who else uses such methods?”
“Assassins usually die, madame. They sacrifice their own lives, confident that in killing—and dying—they go to paradise. But this man ran away, and—and—” The intensity with which she stared at him made Henri nervous. He had told the others, but they had not taken what he said seriously. Stephanie de Milly, however, was staring at him as if he were the Archangel Gabriel.
“Madame, he tore off his turban as he ran. In the open street.”
Stephanie de Milly started. She understood. “A disguise!”
“Yes, madame! I think it was a disguise. The man was an assassin, but not an Assassin. He was a hired killer, not an adherent of Hassan. I do not think the Old Man of the Mountain sent him, madame.”
“Who, then?” Stephanie demanded, horrified and fascinated by what Henri was saying.
“Who had the most to gain by your husband’s death, madame?” Henri asked, and when she did not answer him, he provided the answer. “Raymond de Tripoli, madame.”
Stephanie de Milly sprang to her feet with a stifled cry, but Henri could see that she believed him. She stood clutching her husband’s ring as she thought it all through for herself, and then she nodded and said almost inaudibly, but all the more forcefully: “Tripoli.”
She spun away from Henri and started pacing so furiously that he began to fear he had miscalculated. Maybe she would not reward him for bringing her this message.
Abruptly Stephanie de Milly stopped. She turned back on Henri. “I will have my revenge. Wait and see. Miles will not go unavenged.”
Henri nodded, convinced by the sheer intensity of her voice, even if he could not imagine how a widow could take revenge on the Regent of Jerusalem.
“Will you help me, Sir Henri?” she asked, leaning closer to him—her eyes boring into his own so sharply that he wanted to squirm as if in physical pain.
“Yes, yes,” Henri stammered. “Of course, my lady!”
Still the eyes bore into him, searching his heart and his soul. “Do you mean that, Sir Henri?” she asked him in a low, ominous voice.
“Yes, my lady,” he assured her again, sweating from fear that she might not believe him.
But she did. She straightened and drew back a little, keeping her eyes fixed on the household knight she had hardly noticed before. Then she said slowly and deliberately, “You will be my knight, then? . . . My knight?”
“Yes, my lady; always!” Henri vowed, crossing himself, to seal his oath by calling on the Holy Trinity as his witness.
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