Extract from The Mystic Rose

 

August 24, 1916: Edinburgh, Scotland

A young woman of my acquaintance saw a ghost. Ordinarily, I would not have given such a melodramatic triviality even passing notice, save for two pertinent facts. One: the ghost appeared in broad daylight at the same country house where my wife and I had been staying that very weekend, and two: the ghost was Pemberton.

What made this eerie curiosity more peculiar still was the fact that the spectre materialized in the room we would have occupied if my wife had not come down with a cold earlier that day, thus necessitating our premature departure. We returned to the city so she might rest more comfortably in her own bed that night. Otherwise, we would surely have witnessed the apparition ourselves, and spared Miss Euphemia Gillespie, a young lady of twenty, and the daughter of one of the other guests who was staying that weekend, with whom my wife and I were reasonably well acquainted.

Rumour had it that Miss Gillespie was woken from her nap by a strange sound to find a tall, gaunt figure standing at the foot of her bed. Dressed in a dark suit of clothes, and holding his hat in his hands, he was, she reported, soaking wet, '. . . as if he had been caught in a fearsome shower without his brolly.' The young lady took fright and issued a cry of surprise, whereupon the apparition introduced himself, apologized, and promptly vanished with a bewildered expression on his face.

Be that as it may, the full significance of this event did not truly strike home until word of Pemberton's death reached us two days later, along with news of the loss of RMSLusitaniain the early afternoon of 7th May 1915, roughly the time when his ghost was seen by Miss Gillespie.

This ghostly manifestation might have made a greater stir if it had not been so completely overshadowed by the sinking of the Lusitania. The daily broadsheets were fall of venomous outrage at this latest atrocity: a luxury liner torpedoed without warning by a German U-boat, taking almost twelve hundred civilian souls to a watery grave; TheEdinburgh Evening Heraldpublished a list of the missing drawn from the ship's manifest. Among those who had embarked on the trip to Liverpool from New York were a few score Americans; the rest were Europeans of several nationalities. Pemberton's name was on the list. Thus, while the rest of the world contemplated the fact that the war had taken a sinister turn, I mourned the death of a very dear and close friend.

I pondered the meaning of the spectral portent and, no doubt, would have given the matter its due consideration, but I was very soon distracted by the precipitous and worrying decline in my wife's health. The chill which she contracted that day in the country had grown steadily worse, and by the time the doctor diagnosed influenza, it was too late. My dearest, beloved helpmate and partner of forty-four years passed away two days later.

Within the space of a week, I had lost the two most important people in my life. I was bereft and broken. Where I might have expected to rely upon one to help me through the death of the other, I had neither. Both were gone, and I was left behind to struggle on as best I could. The children were some comfort, it is true; but they had busy lives of their own, and were soon called back to their affairs, leaving me to flounder in quiet misery.

Following my dear Caitlin's funeral, I attempted to resume my work at the firm, but quickly found that there was no joy or solace to be had in the to-ing and fro-ing of the legal trade. In truth, I had for some time been deriving little pleasure from the practice of my profession. Now, however, I found the whole enterprise so grindingly tedious that it was all I could do to maintain civil relations with my younger colleagues. I endured the daily agony for three months and then retired.

All through this time, I had been wondering over the future of the Brotherhood. I daily expected the summons, but it never came. I suppose I began to feel as if the death of our leader had dealt a killing blow to our clandestine organization—in my sorry state of mind it would not have surprised me greatly, I confess. However, the wheels of our Order may grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.

Owing to the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Pemberton's death, we of the Inner Circle could not officially recognize our leader's demise until certain protocols had been observed. I understand that now; I didn't then.

Also, owing to the war, Evans—our esteemed Second Principal—adopted a cautious and conservative policy. It would not have been the first time a passenger listed as missing at sea later turned up alive and well. So, we waited until there could be no doubt, and prepared to mourn the death of our inestimable leader in our own way.

Meanwhile, I became a man of enforced leisure. With plenty of idle hours on my hands, I filled my time with little tasks and such chores as I deemed needful or pleasing, and kept an increasingly anxious eye out for the dally post—waiting for the summons I knew must come at some point.

Spring passed into summer, and the days lengthened. News of the war in Europe—the Great War, the newspapers were calling it—grew more and more dismal by degrees. I forced myself to read the accounts, and was sickened by them; the more so, I suppose, because my own life was sliding into a season of desperate unhappiness. I naturally found myself pondering the recent tragic events.

Time and again, I wrapped myself in melancholy, recalling some happy time I had shared with my wife, and brooding ruefully on the cruelty of time and the manifold weaknesses of the human frame. Still, I did not descend entirely into the Slough of Despond. I reviewed often Pemberton's attempt to communicate with me on the threshold of Eternity, as it were. That was how I came to see it. That fateful weekend in the country had been planned for some time—part of a confirmation celebration for the young son of a mutual acquaintance—and Pemberton knew about it. Indeed, I had been surprised that he was acquainted with the fiamily in question, and we discussed it. If Caitlin had not become ill, we would have been in that room to see him. Thus, he had appeared in the place he reckoned I was to be found.

But why me? Why not Genotti, DeCardou, Zaccaria, or Kutch? Why not Evans, our number two? What had he been trying to tell me?

The quesnon gnawed at me until I decided one day to go and interview Miss Gillespie in the hope of finding an answer. I wrote to her and established a place and time to meet: Kerwood's Tea House on Castle Street, a quiet place where we could discuss the matter discreetly. My guest turned out to be one of those modem emancipated young women for whom conventions of dress and manner are dictated by personal taste and not by tradition or propriety or, indeed, modesty. She appeared wearing one of those shimmery sheaths with little rows of tassels up and down its short, shapeless length, complete with spangled yellow hat and gloves. Confident, educated, and indifferent to matters domestic, she proudly disclosed that she was soon to take up training as a nurse in order to assist in the war effort.

Despite her deliberately provocative ways, I soon discovered in Miss Gillespie a competent, capable, level-headed young person, not at all given to flights of fancy. She also had a fine sense of humour—as I quickly learned, once the tea had come and we had settled into the discussion which was the purpose of my visit. 'To tell the truth, Mister Murray, I do not know which of us was the more frightened. If you could have seen the startled look he gave me. The poor chap—if he had been a haddock plucked from the sea and tossed into the middle of Waverley Station, he could not have looked more surprised. He was the most polite ghost you could imagine.'

'Oh, I can well imagine.'

She looked at me over the rim of her cup. 'Daddy told me you knew the gentleman in question.'

'I knew him quite well, and I can tell you that finding himself in a lady's bedroom would certainly have given him cause for alarm.'

She smiled, her pleasant round face lighting the dullness of a rainy Saturday afternoon. 'I really didn't mean to startle him. But waking up and seeing him standing there at the foot of the bed, all tall and rumpled, and dripping like a drainpipe—well, I'm afraid I shouted at him terribly.'

'You were frightened, I expect.'

'I was at first. But that passed in an instant for I could see he was perplexed.'

'Perplexed?'

'Yes,' she said, nodding thoughtfully, 'that is the word. He didn't seem to know what he was about. You know how it is—you'll be going on about your business, absorbed in your thoughts, and then you look up...where am I?' She laughed. 'Happens to me all the time—don't tell me it's never happened to you.'

'It has been known,' I confessed, enjoying the pleasure of her lively company. 'I once found myself in the Royal Museum with no recollection of how I'd got there.'

'Well, that's how he looked to me—like he didn't quite know where he was or how he got there.'

'Did you know he was aboard the ship that was sunk by the German torpedo?'

'So Daddy told me.' She shook her head gravely, and was silent for a moment, then said, 'That would explain the dripping water.'

'Did he say anything? Did he make any sound at all?'

'He did indeed. He said he was sorry for disturbing me; he told me his name and begged my pardon. Then he wished me a good day—at least that's what I thought he said. I can't be at all certain.'

'Why is that?'

'He was already vanishing by then, you see. He didn't go all of a snap!' She clicked her fingers. 'He began to fade away—like when a cloud passes over the sun and the day goes dim.'

'I see. Well...' I regarded the young woman. As much as I appreciated the information, it carried me no closer to the solution of the mystery which so exercised my mind.

A frown of concentration appeared on Miss Gillespie's face. 'There was one more thing.'

'Yes?' I leaned forward, eager to pounce on the smallest scrap of information.

'I had quite forgotten until just now,' she said slowly, as if trying to remember precisely. 'Just before he faded away completely, he looked at me and said—if I recall it correctly—something like: "The pain is swallowed in peace, and grief in glory."'

The message was obscure. It made no sense to me, and of all the things he might have wished to say, I could not think this had any importance whatsoever. 'Forgive me, Miss Gillespie, but you're certain that is what he said?'

She shook her head vehemently. 'No, Mister Murray, I'm not at all sure. It was very faint and by then he had mostly vanished. Nevertheless, that's what it sounded like to me.' She regarded me with a hopeful expression. 'Does it mean anything to you?'

'I fear not,' I sighed. 'But perhaps something will yet come of it.' We finished our tea then, and made our farewells. 'I thank you, my dear, for taking the time to speak to an old busybody,' I said as we parted. 'Please, give my kind regards to your parents.'

The rain had stopped and so I walked with her to the comer, whereupon we went our separate ways. As the day had come clear and bright, and I had nothing pressing for my attention, I decided to take a turn or two around the park. I walked to the little square just down the street, and entered by the iron gate. A few children had come out to play; their voices jiggled as they skipped and ran to the accompaniment of a barking terrier. A young mother pushed her baby in a large black pram, stopping every now and then to tuck up the blankets, all the while doting on the face of her infant.

I strolled awhile along the fresh rain-washed gravel paths, taking the air and watching the clouds as they broke apart and drifted eastward towards the North Sea. After a time, I sat down on a bench and dozed only a moment, it seemed to me—but I awoke to find the lowering sun had disappeared and a wind was blowing stiff and chill out of the west where darker, more ominous clouds had gathered.

They were, it seemed to me, clouds of war, shadows of the great evil rushing eastward to feed and strengthen the darkness already rampant there. The political quagmire of the European noble houses was inexorably sucking one government and power after another deeper and deeper into the ruinous morass. The fighting, which had now spread on many fronts, grew continually sharper, more brutal and vicious by the day. As yet there was no end in sight.

The splendour of the summer day was, I reflected, like our own lives upon the earth: short-lived, and bounded by darkness on every side.

It was in this sombre mood that I turned my steps towards home. By the time I reached the house, the weather had turned foul. I unlocked the front door just as the first drops of rain spattered on to the pavement behind me.

I quickly stepped inside and, as I turned to close the door behind me, my eye fell upon a small, buff-coloured envelope lying on the mat. I turned it over and saw my name neatly lettered in black ink. My heart began beating faster as I opened the envelope and saw the single word:Tonight.

 

Chapter One

At the pronouncement of the Patriarch of Constantinople, the bride was carried from the cathedral on a silver bed draped with cloth of gold. Alone on that wide and glittering expanse, she looked frightened, cowed, and far younger than her thirteen years. Before her went a hundred black-robed monks chanting theGloria, followed by the stiffly dignified metropolitan in his high-crowned, ruby and ivory-beaded red satin hat; the imposing prelate carried a large silver frame containing the Sacred Mandelion: the cloth bearing the indelible image of Christ, one of Byzantium's most highly valued treasures.

Veiled in delicate silver netting from the top of her golden wedding crown to the tips of her white-stockinged toes, the young woman's slender form shimmered in the light of ten thousand candles as she passed through the standing congregation, borne aloft on the shoulders of eight black Ethiopians in yellow tunics. The noble groom followed his new bride on a white horse, leading a dove-grey mare; both animals were caparisoned in scarlet edged with silver, and both wore white ostrich plumes attached to their silver headpieces.

From her place in the gallery high above the floor, Caitriona, mute with amazement, gazed upon the dazzling spectacle and knew she had never seen anything half so magnificent, and probably never would again. Everything, from the golden crowns to the purple clouds of incense drifting like the mists of Heaven, worked an enchantment of wealth and power that left her breathless.

When the wedding procession passed beneath the upper gallery of Ayia Sophia, all the onlookers rushed to the opposite side and leaned over the marble balustrade to see the towering iron-clad doors of the great church flung open wide and the newly married couple depart on billows of pink rose petals. The crowds which had been waiting outside the church since dawn roared with delight to see the royal party as it began the parade through the city to the Triconchos Palace where the official marriage banquet would be held amidst the marble columns of the Hall of Pearl.

'Well, dear heart,' said Duncan to his daughter, 'what did you think of that?'

'You were very brave to bring me here,' Caitriona replied. 'I have always admired that in you, Papa.'

'Indulgent, perhaps. But why do you say brave?'

'Because,' she said, her lips curving with sardonic glee, 'now that I have seen how a lowly niece of the emperor is feted on her wedding day, I shall accept nothing less on mine.'

Duncan clucked his tongue, and said, 'If I thought there was even the slightest chance you would deign to marry, I swear this cathedral would witness a ceremony far more grand than that which just took place.'

'Bring on the king and golden bed,' snipped Cait. 'Let us get it done here and now.'

'Is it too much for a father to hope the treasure of his life might find a little happiness in wedlock?'

'And ensure the continuance of the noble line, yes.' She frowned dangerously. 'Look at me, Papa, and tell me the truth: who in their right mind would want to marry me?'

'Any number of men, dear heart, given half a chance.'

'Papa!'

'There are fairer women perhaps,' allowed Duncan delicately. 'But the beauty of the soul far outlasts the charms of the flesh.'

'Show me a man enraptured with the beauty of the soul, and I will show you a eunuch.'

Duncan sighed. His daughter's refusal to consider a suitable marriage had long been a thorn in his flesh. While Cait herself imagined it was her lack of loveliness which kept acceptable men at a distance, her father strongly suspected it was the quick, dagger-like edge of her tongue. Why, oh why, did she have to be so hardheaded and immovable? It was, he realized, the family curse.

'Poor, poor Papa,' she cooed, sliding her arm through his. 'Lumbered with a thankless wench of a daughter who makes his life a dreary cavalcade of suffering from dawn to dusk. Oh, will this unendurable misery never cease?'

Leaving their places at the marble rail, they began following the other nobles from the gallery. Once in the outer corridor, they entered the slow-moving stream of people shuffling towards the wide staircase leading down to the main floor of the cathedral. 'I suppose,' mused Duncan philosophically, 'there are worse things than having a daughter who thinks she is King of Caithness.'

Cait laughed. The sound delighted her father, who heard in it the echo of her mother's voice. Alas, that was all she had inherited from her mother; Caitriona's green eyes and long black hair were hers alone. Tall and long-limbed like her forefathers—her stature made the vaunted Grecian beauties seem scrawny and underfed—she was a fully fleshed woman whose imposing presence easily dominated the more demure members of her sex.

Few men could match his wilful daughter for strength of resolve and cold, clear-eyed reckoning, he admitted to himself; fewer still were keen to try. The ancestral blood which flowed through her veins contained too much wild Celt, and too little refined nobility. It was, he knew, often remarked that she was more at ease with a spear in her hand than a spindle—but what of that? When Cait passed by, one caught the scent of sea air and rain-misted heather; the bracing, blustery wind off the highland moors was in her hair and in her impetuous, exuberant nature.

Cait herself was not unaware of what people thought of her. But if other women were more comfortable in costly silks and satins than rough boots and riding trews, more content to sit moon-eyed beside the hearthfire with their needlework than hunt with the hounds, so be it. To Cait's way of thinking, these shrinking, swooning sisters had no one to blame for their drab and insipid lives but themselves.

'Papa, were you and Sydoni married here?' she asked, gazing up at a glittering mosaic of the holy family, resplendent in purple robes and gilded halos.

'Here—in Ayia Sophia?' Duncan glanced at her to see if she were teasing him, but saw that she was in earnest; 'No, not here. Such splendour was far beyond our scanty means. He paused, remembering. 'Also, I seem to remember that to be married in the cathedral required a ten-month delay. I fear neither one of us would have survived the wait—the fires of passion would have consumed us to cinders.'

Cait pretended shock. 'Presented with such a lacklustre jewel of virtue as yourself, dear Papa, I am amazed they allowed you to be married at all. So, wheredidyou find a priest to proclaim the banns?'

'We were married at the Church of Christ Pantocrator. Padraig knew of it, but then he knows everything. As it happens, it is not far from here. We might go there this evening, if you would like to see it.'

'If I would...' she chided. 'It is the sole and entire purpose of this journey to drag your dutiful daughters over every last footprint of your great pilgrimage, and well you know it.'

Duncan took her hand from his arm and kissed it. 'You are a very treasure, my light.'

'I wish Sydoni were here,' Cait said. 'Padraig, too. I am certain they would have a few tales to tell.'

'Oh, indeed,' agreed Duncan somewhat wistfully, remembering the day more than twenty years ago when he and Sydoni had been married in this city, and that night had celebrated their union. 'Well,' he continued after a moment, pressing his daughter's hand, 'we must enjoy our brief stay all the more for their sake, and hear what they have to say when we get home.'

They reached the staircase and started down, following the crowds, and eventually joined the throng in the huge hall-like vestibule just as the royal family emerged from the sanctuary. Imperial Varangian guards moved with silent efficiency into the crowd and swiftly formed a double rank stretching from the sanctuary entrance to the outer doors, whereupon they turned and stood shoulder-to-shoulder behind their gold-rimmed shields, ceremonial lances upraised; the blades of their spears were gold, and dressed with scarlet pennons, but sharp nonetheless. Once this protective corridor was established, other guardsmen marched through it, clearing the crowds before them.

'The emperor and empress!' said Cait. In spite of herself, she was enjoying the imperial display.

'Go, my dear,' he said, urging her forward. 'I will wait here.'

Cait released his arm and darted forward. She threaded her way through the gathered horde and peered over the shoulders of the Varangians to catch a glimpse of Emperor Manuel and Empress Irene, and their sallow-faced daughter, as they swept from the church. They were followed by the Patriarch and the Archbishop, and a long triple row of priests holding lanterns and chanting, their voices rising and falling in rhythmic waves.

As soon as the priests passed, the twin ranks of imperial bodyguards took three paces towards one another, turned, and marched from the church. Instantly, there was a rush behind them as the congregation surged for the door to see the emperor flinging handfuls of gold coins to the crowds. Caitriona was momentarily caught up in the flow and quickly found herself outside the church. The royal party moved on, the clamouring populace with them, and Cait turned against the stream to make her way back inside the church to rejoin her father.

Darting and sliding between close-packed clumps and clusters of people hurrying to follow the procession, she made for the place where she had left him—but he was no longer in. the vestibule. She paused and looked around, but could not see Duncan anywhere, and was at the point of going back outside to look for him when she caught sight of him in the dimly lit sanctuary. Lord Duncan was standing next to one of the gigantic porphyry columns so as to be out of the way of the departing masses.

Cait forced her way through the streaming multitude at the door, and struggled to reach her father. As she came nearer, she saw that he was talking to someone; she could not see who it might be, for the stranger was hidden behind the column; but from the expression on her father's face the conversation was far from cordial.

Duncan's brow was lowered and his jaw was tight, his chin thrust forward defiantly. His eyes glinted cold fire which, although fearsome, was not easily kindled.

Indeed, Caitriona had seen him this way but once in her life: when an uninvited party of Danes, after setting up camp on the beach below the stronghold, had stolen, butchered, and roasted three good breeding cows. When Duncan found out about it, he marched down and confronted them in their camp. The roistering Danes got off lightly, she thought, with an apology and double payment for the cows. He was not facing marauding Danes now, but the expression was the same—his noble features were alight with righteous wrath.

The sudden strangeness of the situation sent a thrill of alarm thrdugh her. Cait felt her scalp tingle with dread anticipation and her stomach tighten into a hard knot. She put her head down and forced her way through the oncoming stream of people. Drawing near, she called her father's name. He heard and turned his head. At that instant another man's face moved out from the shadow of the pillar and Cait saw it clearly: he was bearded, the beard grey but neatly trimmed—in contrast to the stark white hair of his head, which was long and brushed into an untidy nimbus around his high-domed forehead. A long, thin scar puckered the flesh above his left eye, lifting the eyebrow into an expression of scorn which, married to the ferocity glaring from his dark eyes, gave him an aspect of ruthless malice that chilled Cait to the bone.

Then, as if having seen the young woman hastening towards them, the bearded man moved behind the pillar again. She saw the glint of his bared teeth as he slid back into the shadows. Duncan turned towards him and the two continued their conversation.

Cait sidestepped one group of noisy celebrants, and shoved her way through another, reaching her father at last. By the time she rejoined him, the bearded man was gone. She looked where he had been standing and caught the fleeting glimmer of a long white surcoat with a red cross on the back as it disappeared into the crowd.

'Papa, who was that?' she asked, steppmg in beside him.

Duncan, staring fixedly ahead, seemed to be concentrating most intently on her question. He strained for the words, which caught in his throat.

'Papa?' Her voice became urgent.

Duncan turned towards his daughter and forced a sickly smile, his face suddenly grey. He lost his balance and stretched his hand to the polished column to steady himself.

Instinctively, Cait stepped in to bear him up. 'What is wrong?' Even as she spoke the words, she glanced down at his other hand, clutched at his side just below the ribs where a ribbon of blood seeped between his fingers.

'Papa!'

'Cait...' he replied absently.'He...he...' Duncan looked down at his wound and shuddered. 'Ah! For the love of God!' he said, his teeth clenched against the pain. 'Ah!'

'Here—' She slid her arm under his and took his weight on to herself. 'Sit down and rest.' Looking up she cried out, 'Help me! Someone, please! He is wounded!'

But Cait's cry was swallowed in the general crush and confusion, and the nearer passers by, if they heard, paid no attention. She eased him to the floor, and sat him down on the plinth which formed a step at the base of the column. He slumped back, resting his shoulders against the purple stone. 'Do not move,' she told him. 'I will get help.'

She made to dart away, but he seized her wrist and held tight. 'No, Cait,' he said, his voice shaking. 'Stay.'

'I will be back before you know it.' She stood, but he held her tight in his grasp.

'No time, my light. Stay with me.'

'Father, please,' she said. 'Let me find help.' She removed his hand and started off once more.

'Caitriona, no!' he said, his voice recovering something of its former strength. 'There is only one who can help me now, and I will soon stand before him. Stay and pray with me.'

She turned and knelt beside him, slipping her arm behind his head, fighting down the panic clawing at her heart and blurring her vision.

'Listen, Cait. I love you very much.'

'Oh, Papa, I love you, too.'

'Then promise me you will not seek to avenge me,' he said, cold sweat beading on his ashen face. 'Let it end here.'

'I do not understand. Who was that man? Why did he do this?'

'Promise me!' he insisted, raising himself up again. The effort brought a spasm of pain which made him cough. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. 'I know you, Cait. Promise you will not avenge me.'

'Very well, I promise.' She dabbed away the blood with the hem of her blue satin mantle. 'Now, lie back and rest a little.'

Having received her promise, Duncan slumped against the base of the column. 'Good,' he sighed, settling back against the cool stone. 'Good.'

Cait put her hand to her father's cheek. 'Please, Papa,' she persisted, 'I need to understand.'

'Pray for me, Caitriona.' He closed his eyes.

'I will—every day. But I need to understand.'

'Renaud...' He coughed again; more blood came up, staining his teeth and chin. She wiped it away.

At first the name meant nothing. Then the memory suffaced. 'Renaud de Bracineaux? The Templar?' She searched her father's face for a clue to the meaning of this mystery. 'Why?'

He opened his eyes and tried to smile. 'Poor Alethea...I am glad she is not here. She is not as strong as you...' he coughed, and slumped further down, '...take care of her, Cait.'

'Hush.' She put her cheek next to his and held him tight, as it to hold off death through the strength of her embrace. 'I will watch over her.'

He raised his hand and cupped his palm to her chin, holding her face so that he could see her. His eyes were hazy, and his voice wavered. 'Take my heart...' He gulped air, his voice tight with pain, and forced out the words. 'Take it home. Tell Padraig...bury it in the church. He will know what to do.'

Unable to speak, Caitriona simply nodded.

'Sydoni,' he rasped. 'Tell Sydoni...my last thought was of her.' His voice had grown suddenly soft and tenuous as spider-silk 'Tell her I...thanking God...'

'I will tell her.' The tears spilled freely down her cheeks and on to her father's hand.

Duncan raised his hand and kissed the tear with blood-stained lips; Caitriona clutched his hand and pressed it to her cheek. 'Dear heart,' he said, his voice a fading whisper. 'I go.'

He slumped back against the column base with a sigh. In that last exhalation, Gait thought she saw a light flicker briefly in his eyes and heard him say her mother's name...'Ah, Rhona...'—the most delicate ghost of an utterance, a word spoken from the threshold of another world, and he was gone.


Chapter Two

The dull iron glow of a new day was staining the dark waters of the Bosphorus by the time Cait finally returned to the ship. She stood at the rail and stared with red-rimmed eyes at the dirty yellow gleam burning through the grey cloudwrack like a hot poker singeing through sackcloth. After a time, she turned her unblinking gaze to the famed seven hills of Byzantium, all hung in purple mist and smoke, as if in mourning for her murdered father.

She heard a footfall on the deck behind her, but did not turn.

'Good morrow, my lady.' The voice was that of Haemur, their aged Orkneyjar pilot, a loyal and trusted servant, and the one person in the world Duncan would allow to captainPersephoneto the Holy Land. A skilled but uneducated man, Haemur spoke only Norse, peppered with a smattering of Gaelic. 'When you did not return last night, I was worried that—'

She turned and he saw the look on her face. His hands fluttered like distracted birds. 'Lady Caitriona,' he gasped, 'what has happened?' Then, as if realizing for the first time that she was alone, he said, 'But where is my lord Duncan?'

'He is gone, Haemur,' she replied in a voice as brittle and empty as a dry husk.

The seaman gazed uncomprehendingly at the young woman. 'He is coming later perhaps?'

'No.' She shook her head. 'He is dead, Haemur.'

The elderly sailor rubbed his red face with a rough hand. Tears came to his pale blue eyes. 'I see.' He turned away abruptly, and started towards his bench at the stern, dabbing at his eyes. She called him back.

'I am sorry, Haemur.' She moved to him and, taking one of his thick-callused hands in both her own, explained what had taken place at the cathedral. It was quickly and simply told, and then she said, 'The body will be buried later today, and we will attend the rites. Right now, I want you to wake your men and move the ship.'

He regarded her without understanding. 'Dead? Are you certain?'

'Yes,' she confirmed. 'We must move the ship at once. I have arranged for a berth in the Bucoleon Harbour—the one below the lighthouse.'

'The Greek harbour—where the grain ships call.'

'The same. They will not think to look for us there.'

'Who?' he asked.

But she was already moving away. 'Iam going to my quarters now to wash and change my clothes.'

She descended the wooden steps into the hold, which was divided into three sections. The first, near the bow, was shared by the two crewmen who helped Haemur; the middle, and largest section, was the hold proper where all the supplies, provisions, and dry goods for the voyage were kept; the third section, in the stern, was divided into two small compartments for the passengers. Cait and Alethea shared one, and the other belonged to Duncan.

Cait put her hand to the wooden latch and quietly opened the door. Pale dawnlight showed in the small round window over the boxed pallet where Alethea lay sleeping. Cait sat down the edge of the bed and regarded the young woman. Fifteen years old—although she looked, and often behaved, as one younger than her years—she had Sydoni's thick, dark lustrous hair, and smooth tawny skin. Nor did the similarity between the young lady and her mother end there. Alethea was slender and lanky, with a high smooth brow and large dark eyes.

Cait was nearly twelve years old when Alethea was born; and though at first she thought a baby sister a fine and wonderful thing, the joy quickly palled. Alethea considered Cait too harsh and strict on her, always nagging and chastising. In Caitriona's forthright opinion, Thea was flighty and inconsiderate, too easily taken with whims and capricious fancies, and all-too-often indulged when she should have been corrected. Indeed, Alethea should not have been aboard the ship in the first place—except that when she found out that Duncan was planning to take Caitriona to the Holy Land to see all the places he and Padraig had visited during his long pilgrimage, the younger girl had moped and whined and sulked until her father relented and agreed to take her, too.

Cait sat listening to Alethea's deep, regular breathing for a moment, and then reached out and rested her hand on the girl's shoulder where the thin coverlet had slipped aside. The skin was warm beneath her palm, and Thea's face appeared so peaceful and content, Cait was loath to disturb her rest.No, she thought,let her enjoy the last serenity she will know for a very long time. The grieving will come soon enough.

She rose, moved silently to the sea chest at the foot of her bed, opened it, withdrew a clean mantle and small-clothes, and then left Alethea to her rest. She crossed the narrow companionway to her father's quarters and went inside. She stood for a long while, just looking at the room, but apart from the sea chest and a pair of boots in one corner, there was nothing of Duncan to be seen.

Cait lifted a large, shallow brass bowl from its peg and placed it on the sea chest, then filled it with water from the jar. She undressed then, and washed herself over the basin, letting the cool water sluice away the previous day's sweat and anguish and tears. The water felt good on her skin and she wished the bowl was big enough for her to submerge her entire body—like the great enamelled basins of the caliph'shareemher father had told her about once long ago.

When she finished, she dried herself with the linen cloth from the peg, and then, succumbing to her exhaustion at last, lay down in her father's bed. She moulded herself to the depression left by his body in the soft pine shavings of the box pallet, and closed her eyes on the grim nightmare of the day that had been.

But there was neither rest nor sleep, nor less yet any respite from the outrageous succession of misfortune that she had suffered in all that followed her father's death. To recall the stinging injustice of her predicament made her blood seethe.

For, presented with a corpse in their cathedral, the ecclesiastical authorities had fetched thescholae. When questioned by the leader of the troop, Cait had named the killer, and was immediately brought before a courtmagister, who listened politely to her story, and then conducted her forthwith to the Consul of Constantinople, a blunt, practical man with a short-shaved head of bristly grey hair. He sat in a throne-like chair beside a table prepared for his dinner, and listened while she repeated her charge; she told him everything, just as it happened—only to be informed that it was not remotely possible.

'You must be mistaken, woman,' the consul said frankly; his Greek, like that of the others she had spoken to, although different, could be understood readily enough. 'Renaud de Bracineaux is Grand Commander of the Templar Knights of Jerusalem. He is a priest of the church, a protector of pilgrims, upholder of the faith.'

'That may be,' Cait allowed. 'But I saw him with my own eyes. And my father named him before he died.'

'So you say. It is a pity your father died without repeating his accusation to anyone else—one of the priests, perhaps.' He glanced at the table, and stretched his hand towards his cup. 'I am sorry.'

'You mean that you intend to do nothing.' She felt as if the ground were crumbling beneath her and she was plunging into a dark, bottomless pit, helpless to prevent it.

The consul gave her a thin, dismissive smile. 'Even if what you allege was in some way possible, I could not take action against this man based solely on what you have told me.'

'Because I am a woman.'

'Because you arealone.' The consul frowned, and then sighed with exasperated pity. 'Truly, I am sorry. But the law is clear: without the corroboration of at least two witnesses, I can do nothing.'

'The church was full of people,' Caitriona pointed out. 'Someone must have seen what happened.'

'Where are these people?' the consul enquired, lifting a hand to the empty chamber. 'Where are they to be found?'

'Do not mock me, sir!' snarled Cait, her voice growing cold. 'I know what I saw and there was no mistake.' Taking up the skirt of her mantle she spread it before her. 'This!' she said, shaking the cloth angrily. 'This is my father's blood I am wearing. De Bracineaux stabbed him. If you will not do anything about it, thenIwill.'

'I urge you to reconsider.' Angry now, the consul rose from his chair. 'Renaud de Bracineaux is a man of great esteem and even greater renown—a friend and favourite of both King Baldwin of Jerusalem and Emperor Manuel. He is a guest of the Basileus, and I would not presume to trouble him on the basis of the scant evidence you provide. Furthermore, I warn you: should you persist in repeating this accusation, you will certainly be dealt with most harshly.'

'Oh, I am through with accusations,' Cait informed the official icily. 'I may accept your judgement, but I will not suffer the injustice.'

With that, she turned her back and strode from the room. She wept in the street as she walked back to the cathedral, and then again as she sat with her dear father's body and waited for a hired cart to come and collect his remains, then to be taken to the church where he and Sydoni had been married. Following a short negotiation, an agreement was reached where, for a generous gift to the monastery, the brothers were persuaded to allow Duncan to be buried on holy ground—and according to Caitriona's specific conditions.

She left the body to be prepared for burial, and hired a chair and asked to be taken to Bucoleon Harbour; after waiting a considerable time, she had struck a bargain with the overbusy harbour master allowing her two days' berthing—again for a tidy fee.

Daylight was fading by that time, and so she returned to the Church of Christ Pantocrator to pray and wait with her father's corpse, which had been washed and wrapped in a clean linen shroud, and placed on a low board before the altar. She stayed through the night, lighting candles and listening to the monks chant the prayers for the dead. When the watch service was over, she left the church, waking the bearers she had paid to wait for her outside. They carried her through the still-dark streets down to the Venetian Quay where she roused a boatman who had ferried her to the waiting ship as day broke in the east.

Now she lay and listened to the sounds of the crewmen clumping around on deck as they set about moving the ship. She remembered the day Duncan had hired the hands—two brothers from Hordaland in West Norway. The elder, called Otti, was a large, hard-working fellow, rendered simple by a fearsome blow on the skull which, although cutting short his apprenticeship as a Viking, no doubt saved his life. The younger, called Olvir, was a dark, quiet, good-natured boy a year or so older than Alethea; since the death of their parents, he had the responsibility of keeping himself and his older sibling fed, clothed, and out of trouble.

After a time, she heard a splash, followed by the clunk of the anchor on to the deck, and soon sensed a change in the slow, rhythmical rocking of the ship. They were moving. For the briefest instant, she was tempted to go back on deck and order Haemur to sail for home...but no, not yet.

Soon, but not yet.

Cait slept for a while, but rose unsettled and unrested. She washed her face again, dressed in a clean undershift and mantle, and wrapped a handsome woven girdle around her waist; into this she tucked her father's purse, filled with silver, and a slender dagger which had once belonged to her great-grandmother, and which her grandfather Murdo had carried with him on the Great Pilgrimage. She then put on a gown of exquisite thin material—dark for mourning—and chose a long scarf which she folded over the crown of her head and wrapped around her throat so that the ends hung down her back. Then she went up on to the deck to break fast and wait for Alethea to rise and join her. But her sister was already awake. Little more than half-dressed as usual, Cait noticed sourly, she wore neither hat nor shoes, but merely a sleeveless shift which exposed her slender upper arms and shoulders. She was standing at the prow, tapping her palms on the rail in an attitude of agitation.

She whirled on her sister as Caitriona approached. 'Where is Papa? What's happened?' she demanded. 'Haemur would tell me nothing. Why are they moving the ship?'

'Thea,' said Caitriona, reaching towards her sister, 'listen—'

'Haemur said he was not to come with us,' she blurted, her face suddenly blotching with colour. 'Why would he say that?'

'Come and sit with me.' Cait put her hand to the young womans arm, and started towards the covered platform before the mast.

Alethea took two steps and then pulled away. 'No! Tell me now! Why are you doing this?' Her shout made the crewmen turn from their work to look at the two women.

'Please, Alethea, this is not seemly. Now, come and—'

'Tell me!' she demanded, crossing her arms over her breast.

'Very well,' Cait snapped, losing patience. 'Papa is not coming with us because he was attacked when we were leaving the church yesterday.'

'Papa hurt? Where is he? I must go to him.'

'No.' Cait shook her head gently. 'Papa was attacked and he was killed.'

'But where is he? If he is hurt, we must go to him.'

'You are not listening, Thea—'

'You should not have left him. You should—'

'Alethea,' she said sharply, 'Father is dead. He was attacked and killed. I was with him when he died.'

'You left me behind deliberately!' the young woman shouted, tears starting to her eyes.

Stepping close, Caitriona took hold of her sister's arm and gripped it above the elbow. 'Stop it!' When Alethea did not respond, she shook her hard. 'Listen to what you are saying! If you cannot speak sensibly, shut your mouth.'

'This isyourdoing!' Alethea wailed. 'And now I will never see him again!'

Cait was instantly furious. 'Do you think I brought about Father's death just to spite you?' she snapped. 'For once in your life, Thea, think!'

The dark-haired young woman's face seemed to crumple inwardly. 'He cannot be dead.' The tears spilled over her long lashes and her shoulders began to shake. 'Oh, Cait, what are we going to do?' she sobbed. 'What are we going to do?'

Thea put her face in her hands and leaned into her sister's embrace. Cait put her arms around the young woman, and felt Alethea's warm tears seeping through her mantle. 'We will mourn him,' she murmured, rubbing Alethea's smooth bare shoulder as she stared dry-eyed upon the great, looming city spread out before her on its fabled hills, 'and we will see him buried.

'Then,' she added to herself, 'we will avenge him.'