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The Prince and the Panther
Sir Lucian Gilbert, master of lies and disguises has retired from Queen
Elizabeth’s Secret Service to find the answers to his past. He will
journey from England to the Turkish desert to uncover the circumstances
that caused his mother to abandon him. Zeundi, a Nubian assassin raised
in Japan is preparing to meet her demise; but as fate would have it, the
very same Englishman that her assassin ‘sister’ Sauda messenger her to
protect, is the same man that rescues her from the Grand Vizier’s arena
of death. Now she is determined to stay alive and help Lucian on his
mission while hiding from those who seek her life for the bounty price.
Lucian and Zeundi, both, pompous, proud and overbearing come to realize
their destinies are intertwined and in each other a peace they’ve never
found before. As they search for Lucian’s truths inside the guarded
palace of the Ottoman Empire, love is what they discover. Once Lucian
uncovers the truth will the Zeundi still have a place in his life?
The Prince and the Panther
PROLOGUE
 
New Colony, Mauri Isle
April 1580
 
Sauda snuggled her dark naked body against her husband’s pale naked skin before placing a gentle kiss to his shoulder.  Her beloved Englishman, Lord Claire, had risked all to love her and because of it, she would spend every day of the rest of her life living to make him as happy as he made her.
Ethan, an excommunicated royal of Queen Elizabeth's court, had been stripped of all properties and titles, save one, his knighthood.  His mentor, Sir Francis Walsingham, head of the queen's secret service, had held firmly against the Queen's Council and quarreled for Ethan's right to remain a citizen of England. 
It only seemed fitting for he had duly been a loyal subject in the naval services and tendered great wealth and goods from foreign lands to fatten Queen Elizabeth’s coffers, but he had created a new colony for his family and others like them that willed to live and love freely without titles and class associations.
“Ethan…” she began.  Her fingers swirled wide patterns in the light brown hair upon his broad chest.
“Nay, not again, my love, for thou has exhausted me to the verily ends,” he groaned.
Sauda playfully slapped his chest.  “I am not speaking of lovemaking, Good Husband.  Thrice in one day is gluttonous at best.”
“I know of what you utter Sauda and that is why I say nay.”  His pleasant voice held a warning.  “Now lovemaking is a subject in which I am a most willing participant.”  He patted and squeezed her round bottom.
“Ethan--”
“Come come my love, speak no more of serious matters and fill my ears with lustful things,” he rudely interrupted.  One by one he placed nibbling kisses to her fingers as he brought her hand to his lips.
“Three times you have distracted me,” Sauda pointed out.  Her traitorous female parts were already responding to his sucking on her finger.
“I believe thrice buried to the hilt inside thee, with my man-sword, is ne'r too much.”  He kissed the top of her hand and held it palm side down over his heart beneath his. 
At the sound of his long tired sigh, Sauda felt the sudden change in his demeanor knowing instinctively where his thoughts had wandered.  His next words confirmed she was correct.
“I was plagued by many impotent years before I met thee, Wife.  I bid thee to not seek to place limits on my bed games.”  He spoke the words in a jesting manner; however she knew that the abuse at the hands of his Turkish capturers had left scars that went deeper than the mess of scarred flesh they’d imprinted upon his broad back.    
“I would not deny you your pleasures, milord,” she murmured.  “To do so would bring pain to me.”  She licked, kissed and rubbed her nose against his body.  She loved his smell and savored the taste of his skin even more. 
Ethan released a shuddering groan.  “Have I told you of late, how felicitous ye make me?”   Releasing her hand he buried his hand in the thick debts of her frizzed hair and leaned forward to kiss her brow.
“Lord Husband, you are the mightiest of all men, the greatest of all lovers and the savior of this low born woman.  I have survived slavery, plagues, wars, famine and death for the sake of your happiness.”
 Slowly she trailed her fingernails down the fine trail of hair leading from navel to groin.  The silky soft length of his increasing erection rested across the back of her hand as she buried her fingertips into the patch of honeyed color pubic hair.
“Ha!  I am amazed your forked tongue did not suffocate thee for spouting such insincere words.”  Ethan expressed mirth; not totally missing her sarcasm. 
“I nigh did,” she mumbled contritely.  “Yet I know men like hearing such things; are you any different?”
“Not if ye mean them, sweetling,” he chuckled. 
“I meant some of them, milord.”
“Ah,” he grinned.  “Did you lie when you said I am the ‘greatest of all lovers’?”  
Her fingers tugged at his pubic hairs and oddly enough he found the sensation pleasing.  Verily pleasing.  He sucked in his bottom lip to stifle his moan.
“Nay,” she scoffed.  “I have had too many lovers to judge fairly without sleeping with them once more to be sure,” she teased.  “Now, the part where I have survived slavery, plagues, wars, famine and death is true.”
“For my…” his voice got caught on a moan in the back of his throat.  What is this magical thing she is doing with her fingers?  Ethan wondered to himself.  He cleared his throat and tried once more, “Mmm…for my happiness right?”  He managed to ask; his breath blowing out in heavy puffs.
He would have thought her unawares of the effect she was having on him from the nonchalant expression on her face, but his wife had too much experience in the ways of a concubine for this subtle assault on his body to be as innocent as it appeared.
“Ah, my love, am I not making you happy?”
“Sauda,” he moaned placing a large hand over hers to halt the almost painful yet pleasurable sensations she was allotting with her skillful fingers.  He moved her hand up to a more respectable part of his body. 
Sauda hid a smile and forged ahead. “I promise that if you bid me my wishes this one time, we could aid Lucian without risk to me or the babe.”
“I don’t see how that will be possible.”
“My warrior sister, the Panther; remember I spoke of her.  Her territory is the Middle East.  I can dispatch a missive for her to find Lucian and offer him assistance in the search for his mother.”
“As I have said before, it is too risky for thee, Wife.  If even one of your assassin sisters knows that you still live, they could let it slip to your old master, Lady Chiyome.”
“I know my sisters.  You do not.”  She snapped.  “We have a closeness that even our master never suspected.  I know that none of my sisters would ever betray me, as you know Lucian would die for you.”
Ethan squeezed her hand in understanding.  Still, he wasn’t sold on the idea of risking Sauda’s life, not even for Lucian.  He knew from years of experience working side by side as soldiers in Queen Elizabeth Secret Service that Lucian was fully capable of taking care of himself.
His comrade had even saved him from dying in that Turkish prison because of his gift for languages and his chameleon abilities for disguises and blending in to any given environment.
“Don’t ask me to trust them.  What if this Panther sister of yours is tortured by Lady Chiyome’s henchmen and forced to tell?”
“Ethan, I know you and I were born to different circumstances, but it doesn’t make my friends any less loyal than yours.  Would your men betray you?”
“Mayhap; if they are tortured by someone as experienced as you have claimed the Japanese General that hunted you is,” he argued.  “Can we verily risk him finding out that you are not dead, Sauda?”
“Trust that I would bring no more harm to our happiness than you.  We do not have to worry about Lady Chiyome questioning Zeundi.  After making my escape during my last mission, I heard Lady Chiyome couldn’t bear to have my sisters around her as a reminder.  She sold Ntombi, to where I am not sure yet.  But I did find out that Zeundi had been sold to a Vizier in Turkey.”
“If I remember correctly a Vizier is a councilman?”
Sauda nodded.  “This particular Vizier is the councilman of Amasya, where Lucian is going.”
Choosing to ignore the point she was making Ethan asked instead, “Why did Lady Chiyome get rid of the other assassins in your assemble if they are still capable of performing missions without you?”
“Lady Chiyome’s birth number is four,” she explained.  “Each team of assassins is made up of four.  When a team loses a member, she kills or sells the rest.”
“Would not it have been better if she just added another to replace you?”
“Replace me?”  Sauda scoffed.  “There is none that can replace me, Milord Husband and you best remember what I tell you just in case you ever contemplate doing the same.”
“I have a feeling the thought shall cross my mind,” he teased softly. 
Ethan laughed when Sauda tugged to get her hand free of his.  He knew she would have given him one of those deadly finger jabs to one of his unsuspecting muscles causing him pain however she deemed necessary to make her point.
“This is no laughing matter, Ethan,” she chastised.
His expression became serious when she called him by his given name for she rarely did so.  Contritely, he pulled her palm to his lips and murmured, “Forgive me, milady, I bid thee to continue.”
“Our groups are trained since our childhood together to move as one unflawed implement of war.  You cannot just merge another assassin into the grouping.”
“Might I query as to why not?  It would easier to train one than four more.”
“It breaks the balance.  There is no fertile trust between the old and new.”  She looked up at him loving the feel of his big hand massaging her scalp.  “An assassin dare not offer their back to one they do not trust.” 
  He almost laughed at his wife’s staid glare.  She looked at him as if he should already know these things.  He indeed spied for the crown with an unscrupulous deed here or there, but he was soldier, not an assassin.
 “It must have been a hard decision for you to leave behind the only family you have known.”
“Leaving my sisters was harder than I expected.  They understood I had no choice because of Lady Chiyome’s obsession with me.  I could not continue living as her lover.  Do you know how many times I would lie in the bed next to her thinking of a thousand ways I could kill her slowly?”
“Moonlight, I am sorry you had to endure such a life.”
“I did not think or plan, I just saw an opportunity to escape from my life and start over again when I was nearly killed from that last mission.  I figured they would think I had died from my injuries.
“Never had I expected Lady Chiyome would want either my body returned to her or the tip of the scorpion’s tail from the tattoo on my back as proof,” she grounded out through clenched teeth.
“I am surprised she did not kill your sisters when they returned without you,” Ethan commented.
“I imagined she thought about it.  However she could not touch Eman because she is the favored concubine of her youngest warlord son, Tatsue.  The soldiers are very loyal to him and unless she wishes for an uprising she does not argue with him.  He is the youngest of three sons and as a child she spoiled him.  However now that his brothers were slain in battle, he is all she has left.”
“How did Eman come to be Chiyome’s son’s concubine?”  Ethan’s inquired.   “Did you not say such a union is forbidden?”
  “It is because of Lady Chiyome’s desire to spoil Tatsue,” Sauda laughed softly.  “She gifted her to Tatsue when he was seven as his personal bodyguard.  Even though Eman was just fourteen; like me, she was well into her training and very skilled.”
“Eman not only trained with Tatsue, she also brought him into his manhood and taught him the ways of lovemaking when he reached thirteen summers.  I suppose the bond between them could not help but grow.”
“Do you think he is in love with her?”
“It was just the way things were,” she reached out and played with the cleft in his squared chin.  “Now that I know what love is, I can say yes.  I do believe they are in love; whether they know this or not, I do not know.”
“Every time I heed things of your past, it amazes me how ye managed to survive, Sauda.”  Ethan released a heavy sigh.  “This is why your request of me is difficult and I must tarry before making such a decision.”
“Husband, the point I have been trying to make is…Zeundi already resides in Amasya and for us this is an advantage.”
“Still…”
“If you do not wish to help, then I can do this alone,” she reminded. 
Ethan released a long line of curses. “Lucian's private affairs are his alone.  Why do you think he did not wait until I was able to join him? Sauda please leave behind these dangerous thoughts!  I am your husband and I forbid you to be careless with the life of my child!”
Sauda shifted positions so that she could look sternly into his eyes as she spoke.  “I extended milord husband a mere courtesy,” she began.
“I heed you saying you care not of my fears?” His voice hardened.
 With a determined gaze, Sauda nakedly rose to her knees beside him and proceeded to straddled herself across his ridged abdomen. 
“Lord Husband, I do care about your fears, but I know that if anything were to happen to Sir Lucian, you will never forgive yourself for not being with him on this journey.”
“Sauda--”
“Nay more,” she interrupted. “I have become lax since developing these bothersome womanly feelings for you.  Because you hold my heart, you think I should give in to your every whim--”
“As well you should,” he murmured. “For thee is indeed a woman, Sauda.  You are my woman to be exact.”
  “Yours or not, I do not need your permission, but by the love I have for you and our unborn babe, I wish you bid me some understanding.”
“Wife, if I was weak into giving into your every whim, you would have retrieved that retired satchel of foreign weaponry and join Lucian on this journey.”
“Because he saved both of our lives and we owe him for this happiness we have found!”
“Sauda, do you verily not heed how my conscious perishes at the thought of my good friend returning to the desert sand that soaked up my life’s blood without me?”  He scowled.  “We have journeyed together since we sprouted our first whiskers.  I promised him that someday when our duties to the crown were over I would help him locate his mother, but I had no idea that I would have the good fortune to meet you.  Your good health is my life’s priority.”
“Milord--”   
Ethan’s stern voice softened and he reached up to cup her bottom in both hands as he interrupted.  “This is killing me too, Sauda.” 
At that moment she realized the longer she subsists in his world as a docile wife, the more overprotective he was becoming.  It was times such as this one she had no choice but to remind Ethan she was not the English wilting flower that lived and breathed on her mate’s every word.  She was a Moor born to a tribe of women who fought at their men’s side.  Motherhood may soften her hardness within time, but not this day. 
Even though her history as an assassin pounded heavily in her, giving her a need for total independence, she tried to be understanding.  She knew she was taking a risk by sending her messenger and a message with her personal scorpion seal to Zeundi.  Lady Chiyome’s secretive minions could indeed still be spying over Zeundi to assure she never returned to Japan to exact revenge on Lady Chiyome for her past abuse. 
Even if she wasn't growing heavy with their child, it was a reckless thing to do but it was the only decision they could make.  Lucian Gilbert needed them even though he was too proud to admit it. 
“Ethan, I prefer your approval but I must do this.  I have to ask Zeundi for her help.”
“Sauda, what if your parchment is seized by someone other than your warrior sister?  What if Zeundi has been sold away from Turkey?   Heaven forbid the worse, however she could be dead.” 
He swept a hand through his pale hair; a sure sign that he was exceedingly agitated which meant he was about to give in to her request or dig his heels in deep.   If it were the latter, she would not get any bed play or loving words out of him for days to come. 
The one thing she learned about her giant of a husband since living with him was that most of the time he was happy, easy to laugh and tease, and slow to anger but when he was upset or disappointed he could be a brooding melancholy man. 
“Ethan…my love, I have never had a family I could truly call my own.  You, Lucian, your grandmother Mary and her husband Sir Nichols have all become my family and I feel very protective of all of you.  How can you ask me to turn the other way and leave all to chance when one member of our family could be in danger?” 
Ethan reached up to rub his hands along the length of her arms before intertwining her fingers with his.  Although he was upset by her obstinate nature, he felt a need to touch her and as usual she lovingly welcomed his touch.
“If I give in to this, Sauda, what will thee ask of me next?” 
“Nothing else except…well…I would like to someday rescue my ‘sisters’ from their enslavement and have them live here on the island with us as free women,” she admitted her secret wish aloud.
“It weakens me so, Moonlight, to hear such longing in your voice.  I oft wonder if ye shall grow wearisome of the repose of my love and return to the life of bloodlust you once knew afore me.”  He spoke with a tone of sadness.  “Is that what I have to look forward to?  Will I wake up to find ye have abandoned me and the child?”
“If I were to leave your side for more than a sonnet, I know I would stop breathing.  I could never willingly abandon you milord, not even for my sisters.” Sauda lovingly caressed his face.  “Cannot you see the love I feel for you in mine eyes still runs deep, Husband?”
“I see it.  I just wonder if it will be enough to keep you safely at my side for years to come,” Ethan confessed his fears aloud. “Why are you smiling?” 
Whenever she smiled, it spurred his heart into a racing pitter patter.  His mouth opened into a returned smile.
“Because, some things are meant to be and if there were two that were predestined to be together it is you and I.  You have my word that whatever adventure I seek it will be with you at my side; just as it has always been since the day we met.” 
He pondered her words a moment and feeling secure with her answer he asked, “Would your sisters come to the Island to live if it could be managed?”
“Zeundi would.  I cannot say the same for Ntombi because I have yet to find out her current situation and Eman…well…”
“It would be difficult because she still lives with Lady Chiyome.”  He finished for her. 
“It is more than that Ethan.”  Sauda’s brow lifted.  “As I had mentioned, Tatsue is a willful and powerful warlord even though he is still young.  He and his army is the only thing that is keeping Lady Chiyome’s borders safe from the hands of her neighboring enemies.  Eman will not leave Tatsue behind.”
“Do you think once she sees how happy you are she could be convinced to leave her master?”   Ethan questioned.
“She will never leave Tatsue of her own free will.”  Sauda shook her head with a scowl on her brow.  “Eman’s heart along with her loyalty was given to him years ago.  My sister specializes in creating explosive powders.  She rarely fights hand to hand combat but she will unsheathe her weapons to fight by Tatsue’s side.  She will protect him with her life.  Even her loyalty to her sisters are forgotten when it comes to Tatsue.”
“Sounds like she is more than a concubine,” Ethan scoffed.  “It sounds as if she loves this man.”
“Aye, I do believe that is true for I know Tatsue would ride through hell to protect her also.  It is no more permitted for a warlord to admit his love for a Black Slave than it was for an Aristocratic Englishman such as yourself to admit your love for me.” 
“Still, I did make it known and I also found a way to make you mine,” he spoke sternly.  “Unless this man you speak of is willing to do the same for your sister or she is willing to leave him behind, this is not a dream of yours that can come to pass, Sauda.”
 Leaning over she placed a moist kiss to his parted mouth.
“You know, milord husband, there is one way to guarantee Eman will agree to make Mauri Isles her new home.”
“How is it possible?  You just said--”   His words dwindled.
Sauda nodded and as her smile grew bigger, Ethan’s concern gnawed painfully at his gut.  He wondered of one could perish from worry.
“We can kidnap him and bring him here to see what his life could be like living and loving Eman openly and honestly.”
Ethan’s eyes were wide in disbelief.  “Do not even think it, Sauda.  You are speaking of the warlord son of a woman who wouldst like nothing better than to steal you away from me.  You want me to bring him to our home against his will!  Have you lost all your wits?”  He bellowed out his question, not expecting an answer of course.
“Husband, it is a perfect solution,” Sauda reasoned.
“I bid this man who is used to wielding his own army wouldst not heed easily to making his home here beneath my ever-watchful gaze.  There are no masters or lordships here.”
“I believe once Eman sees how happy we are and once she discovers that she can be more to Tatsue than a slave and concubine, she would be the one to sway his thinking.  They could possibly have a child of their own that they could rear it together without fear of his being assassinated or sold into slavery…” Sauda touched the swelling rise of her belly.  “No decisions must be made now.  Just pray tell me you will think upon it.”
“Why prithee wouldst such a man desire to leave all that power he wields for the peaceful solitude we are offering?  Please do not aloft your hopes on this happening.”
“I believe he will find joy in the peace,” she reasoned.  “Peace from all the warring and death that can only be found on our private island.  We are building a place for those who wish for change.  How can one that has lived such a life as his not fall in love with what our colony has to offer?”
“Aye, we are a progressive assortment of riff raff are we not?”  He grinned with pleasure.  Adding, “There is no reason to speak on this again until after the child is born and if I am to agree, you must remain on the island.  I will not allow thee to set foot on Japanese soil ever again, dearling.”
“My love, why do not we finish one argument before we move onward to another?”  She nuzzled lovingly against his chin with the tip of her nose.
“Lucian,” he sighed his name.
“Aye Lucian,” she reminded.  “We are in an emphatic position to aid him.  The sooner he learns the truth of his mother, the sooner he will return home to us and start building his home and hopefully take a wife and settle down.”  She placed his large hand on her swelling abdomen.  “He is our baby’s godfather and he should be here to watch him or her grow.”
“You play unfair, woman.” 
“Come milord,” she urged him towards her so that they would be breasts to chest.  A light gasp escaped her parted lips as his muscular stomach rippled beneath her spread thighs from his movements.  His erection brushed against her buttocks.  
“Want me to do it again?”  Ethan asked with a wolfish grin after catching the pleased look on her face.
“Nay; I know you wish only to distract me,” Sauda reprimanded. 
“Sauda I expect you to be breeding me a son.  There need to be two men in this family to go against such a stubborn wench as thee.”
  “How can you doubt it, Lord Husband?  I am a warring female from a tribe of born warriors of Africa,” she began proudly.  “I have travelled far and wide only to fall in love with a man that by all the laws of the land should not be mine.  I would say with those odds I am probably spawning you two fine sons, milord.” 
Closing her eyes and opening her lips she accepted his initiated kiss.  When she moved to pull back, his hold tightened and he sucked on the tip of her tongue binding her to his will and she willingly relinquished to his mastery of the kiss.  By the time he stopped kissing her, they both were ready to conclude their discussion and move on to more pleasurable things.
 “Wife, I bid ye are determined to have your way,” Ethan sighed and his face softened as he took both her hands in his and brought them up to his lips.  “Even though I find thee shameless to use my babe to soften my resoluteness, I forgive thee because your intentions are just.”
“Milord Husband, you know how hard it is for me to delegate matters that I am accustomed to handling myself…”
“Aye.”
“This is why it is important that you meet me by-the-way in this matter.  I know you love me and you worry over my recklessness, but you also love Lucian.  If it were not for me you would be in your usual place by his side…watching his back.”
Ethan reached up to hold her face in his hands.  “My beautiful mysterious wife, you know I cannot deny you anything.”  He shook his head.  “I prithee have it your way.”
She smiled in that secretive womanly way that caused his cock to wave like a flag of capitulation and his gut to churn like the doting besotted idiot he had become.
 “You mean I can do what I think necessary to help Lucian?”  Sauda eyed him suspiciously.  “And you are willing to send a promissory to your and Lucian’s friend, Commander Angel Manuel to join up with Lucian?
“Aye, I have already done so, Sauda.”  He washed his hand over his face in frustration.
“You have?”
“Regardless of what ye may think, I too wish to help Lucian.  I just do not want YOU involved.”
Sauda braced her hands against his broad chest refusing to allow him to kiss her again until she got an “aye” to everything.
 “You are also agreeing that I should proceed to send my messenger to Zeundi requesting her to aid Lucian in whatever he may need?”
“I said, AYE have I not?  Do ye need to hear it in all the languages into which I speak?”  He released a disgruntled sound.  “I entreat thee to argue no more and proceed to the all is forgiven part.”  He drew her head back towards his to kiss her once more.
She didn’t kiss him back.  He growled his growing frustration and dropped back against the pillows, locking his hands together behind his head.
“Do you not think we should make haste on this matter?”  She reached for the last mincemeat pastry on the bedside table and plopped it whole into her mouth.
Ethan smiled as her long lashes fluttered closed and she released a pleasurable sigh.
 “Bide thee tongue heathen woman.  At least when you are savoring those damnable pastries, you cannot bleat at me!”
Her eyes flew open and she licked the flakes of crumbs from her lips.
At the gesture, his already erect penis waved behind her round fleshy bottom for the same amount of attention she was giving the pastry, but it was not to be.
“I…do…not…bleat…like a sheep,” she said spacing her words evenly to make her point. “Besides these goodies are addictive and suits the baby’s cravings.  You see Cook adds these finely chopped green tomatoes in with the apples, raisins, currents, beef suet and spices.”
“Do not forget sugar.  Ye will put us in a pauper’s house on the sugar promissory note alone and dare not fret to me when thy teeth proceed to rot from excess.”
“As I have shared the ancient recipe for a wondrous tooth powder that I obtained during my stay in China with Mary, both our beautiful smiles and those all around us will suffer tooth decay at a slower pace.”
He ran his tongue over his teeth.  “Aye, I must admit this newfound smoothness and shine to be greatly approving.  If Queen Elizabeth was still speaking to me I would most gladly pass this wondrous magical power to aid whatever remaining teeth she has left.”
Even though her husband said it in a joking manner; it was no joke that the queen’s rancid breath from her decaying teeth due to her love for sweets was well known to those who had come in contact with her majestic person while at court.
When Sauda saved her life during Queen Elizabeth’s masque birthday ball, she had come closer to the queen than she would have been allowed otherwise.  The knife womb to her shoulder wasn’t the only thing memorable about her encounter with the queen. 
The woman that held life and death of her people within the palm of her hand had been more petite and frail than she had expected. 
With the exception of her bad breath, Sauda was told by a gossiping palace maid that she had come in contact with the queen on one of her clean days.  She had bathed just that morning for the special occasion and all. 
From the conversation, she understood that the putrid rose scent that permeated the dance costume she had worn, belonged to the queen from when Sauda had thrown herself against her, knocking her to the ground.  
Lucky for her, Ethan had been there to stop her guards from striking her dead.  Sauda had ordered the dance costume to be burned; there was no way she could save the garment.  What the strong floral odor didn’t cover, her blood did.
“Come husband,” Sauda said snapping from her reverie about the past.  “Let us get the letters written so that we may get them sent out first thing on the morn.”
“Nay,” Ethan bellowed ceasing her movements.  “I do not hasten to do anymore this eventide except make love to my wife and rest mine weary state.  That new medical facility my grandmother has ordered is not constructing itself.  I worked hard this day and expected to come home to one of those oil rubs my wife is so skillfully inclined to give.”
“Did I not give you such a rub after I bathed the day’s dirt from your person?”  She cocked an eyebrow in question.
“Aye, now I heed the truth.  Ye were oiling the proverbial goose.  With the said ‘goose’ being ME,” he argued.  “Do not deny you had alternative motives behind your tender touches.”
She leaned over, her hard enlarged stomach and breasts pressed against him.  Her lips were just an inch away from his as she spoke.  “Did I fail to please the ‘sacrificial goose’, milord?”
“Ye never cease in pleasing me, milady,” he murmured.  Capturing her bottom lip with his mouth, he sucked greedily before releasing its pouty fullness with a lustful “pop.”  Ethan roguishly grinned up at her face hovering above his.
“Low and behold the scoundrel that you truly are, Milord,” Sauda teasingly chastised with a throaty laugh.  “You dare to weaken my warrior’s heart with those disarming dimples!”  Unable to help herself she grasped hands full of his golden hair in her fists and slashed her lips across his firmer lips.
Her assault of his mouth caused his senses to spin as his attention narrowed in on the erotic sensations of her greedy kiss.  The taste of lingering cinnamon from the mincemeat pastries was still on her tongue adding to the essence that was Sauda. 
From her mouth, he too could become addictive to her favorite sweetmeats.   He didn’t want the kiss to ever end.  Feeling the urgency of her mouth on his lessening, Ethan’s hands smoothed the sides of her full breasts, brushing his thumbs over her extended nipples before resting on her round hips to keep her from withdrawing her loving nectar from him. 
Feeling a sense of urgency to join with her, Ethan lifted Sauda with little effort from her perch on his stomach.  Intent on settling her moist heat on his more than readied cock he realized the error of his haste.  Before he could complete the entrance he yelped in pain releasing her hips to finger his bloodied bottom lip.
Reaching out he grasped her by the shoulders to give her a light shake.
“God’s wound…Sauda!  You bit me!  Damned the saints that hurt,” he bellowed. 
“Before Milord Husband dips thee wick I need your oath on our unborn child that as soon as you appease your hunger for me--”
“As is such a deed is possible,” Ethan injected with a growl.
“That you will not withdraw your approval to allow me to help with Lucian, Ethan,” she continued. 
Reaching out with her thumb, Sauda smeared the blood from his lip before licking at her thumb and placing it in her mouth to suckle wantonly.
“Seeing you do that with your thumb excites me,” Ethan's voice was deep and lustful.  He moved to pull her down so that her breasts would lie against his chest, only to find his arms locked flat on the stuffed pillows as Sauda clasped his wrists in her hands.  He released a frustrated groan.  “Sauda, I prithee you not push me any further this eve.”
  “Husband, I know if I do not get your sworn word now, you will remind me after you have satisfied your lustful urges that I failed to bind you to your word.  I must gainsay your pledge here and now,” she said with a scowl. 
“Woman,” he warned.
“Nay!  I want Zeundi's help.  I bid thee, give me your blood oath that I can do all within my power to help Lucian in his search for his mother.”  Her heated stare matched his. 
 “Fie this woman I call Wife!  I shall call thy Shrew Wife from this day forth for ye shrivel my man-cock to a nub with your constant nagging!”
Sauda grinned as he released another string of colorful words.  “Would you prefer we decide this dilemma over swords?”  She cocked her head to the side in question.
“I wouldst not!”  With a throaty growl Ethan exerted his strength forcing Sauda backwards onto her back careful of her blossoming belly.  His powerful legs forced her legs wide to accommodate him before taking advantage of her surprise by entering inside her wet feminine warmth in one smooth push until his bollocks touched her ass.  A deep contented swoosh of breath blew between clenched teeth.
“Damn you Ethan!”  She hissed at him.  Her arms flayed and nearly knocked him off his balanced arms.  He eased to his side, still connected to her and drew her thick shapely thigh over his hip and locked it beneath his arm.  His large hand cupped a firm buttock cheek and squeezed in warning for her to yield to him.
“Why must you force me to show thee I am the strongest in this wedded bed?  Aye, mine love for thee weakens me like a kitten and I spoil thee.   However I am now and always will be the Lord Husband in this marriage Sauda.  It bodes thee well to remember this!”
“It is weakened times such as this I regret marrying such an oversized oaf as you,” she hissed at him.
His dimples flashed.  “Liar,” Ethan crooned softly.  “Ye love me more than the breath that causes your bosoms to heave so heavily.”  He murmured the soothing words against her lips as his nose rubbed against her nose.
“May the gods take you for uttering the truth,” she gasped.  Opening her mouth, she accepted his tongue as it parried and retreated.  Her frown deepened when he pulled back to look into her eyes. 
“Why do you scowl so?”  Ethan asked.
“Yea, I love you but I also hate you for making me feel vulnerable and weak.”           
“Moonlight, ye are the strongest maiden I know,” he gentled.
His cock moved inside her of its own accord.
Sauda moaned. 
“Release my arm so that I much touch you, husband.”   She bit down on her bottom lip to keep from crying out as he eased out of her until the head of his cock was nearly at the rim of her vagina opening before he forged ahead…slowly.
 “Hmm…please…you have proven your point,” she whimpered.  “You are the master of my body!”
He withdrew again.  “I want more from you Sauda.”  He glided in.
She licked her dry lips.  Her thigh trembled beneath his hold.  “What more can I gift thee, milord?  You have my body, my heart and my soul.”
He lifted his head.  His jade colored gaze held hers.  The need and adoration he saw in them mimicked his own.  She had won the battle…this time.  He would allow her to contact her assassin sister, but in the battle they occasionally warred as lovers, he must always defeat her for if he knew anything about his wife, he knew she deserved a man that could make her yield while allowing her to maintain her proud bearing.
“I ask that ye continue to trust me to care for yon welfare,” he replied.
Ethan released her arm and grunted his pleasure while she roamed her hands over his lower back.  Her hand gripped the muscles of the right ass cheek while she drew her bent knee up higher until it was nearly to his arm pit, drawing his penis deep.
“Husband, you are the only man I do trust,” she murmured. 
He kissed her once again before quietly saying, “My beloved, from here on let us speak only words of love in accordance with engaging utterances of pleasure.”
 
 
CHAPTER ONE
 
 
A dog that bites never bares his teeth…
 
 
Vizier Kemal Ahmed’s Palace, Amasya Turkey
September 1580
 
     Zeundi, also known as “the Panther,” prostrated herself before her master, Vizier Kemal Ahmed, and awaited his decree.
     “You have failed to return my son and heir to me, Zeundi.   What say you of this accusation?”
“Greatest Lord Ahmed, I admit I have failed in my mission to keep Prince Kasir safely within the walls of the palace.”  Her melodious speaking voice resounded through the chambers despite her submissive position.  “I have searched far and beyond for months and there are no traces of Prince Kasir to be found.  I admit defeat and I am here to accept the punishment you deem fitting for my failure.”
“You are not some lacking Nubian slave girl who does not know her wit from her ass.  Stand and face me like the Royal Koruma, guard, you are.”  The Vizier’s deep voice beckoned.
Standing, Zeundi straightened her shoulders into her usual prideful stance with her head held high.  However, her eyes remained downcast from looking her current master directly in the eye as protocol required.
“Explain to me, Koruma Zeundi, how one that was reared by the unyielding hand of Lady Chiyome fail such a simple task?”  He leaned forward in his chair of golden painted wood and blue velvet upholstery. 
“Forgive me Great Lord Ahmed for speaking so bluntly; but, guarding Prince Kasir has by no means been a simple task.”
“You have served my needs well in the past.  What has changed?  Why have you failed me?” 
Her unusual olive colored eyes looked to the left shoulder of the older man's aged weathered face respectfully.  “As you know, Great Ahmed, I have laid down my life to protect your son as it is my duty to do so.  However, I cannot protect Prince Kasir if he does not wish to be protected,” she said truthfully.
The Vizier released a long sigh, nodding his head in agreement.   “Though that is true Koruma Zeundi, if you cannot protect my heir I have no use of one as dangerously skillful as you are in my household.”  His wrinkled heavily jeweled brown fingers stroked his graying long beard.  “You know what this entails?
She nodded her head; her expression remained unchanged.
“Zeundi,” Ahmed called her name.  His voice became low and somber.  “Look at me.”
She did as she was ordered.
“You and I both know what happens to your kind once you have outlived your usefulness, do we not?”
“Yes, we do, Great Ahmed.”
“To be sure that you understand what you are doing by admitting your failure to return my son to me, tell me what is to happen to you, Zeundi.”
“I am to be put to death and the red eyes of the panther that is forever marked upon my back is to be skinned from my back and delivered to my old master Lady Chiyome as proof of my death,” she spoke clearly.
Ahmed couldn’t help but admire her.  Any lesser woman or man would have been groveling for understanding and forgiveness.  Not the proud Nubian Zeundi; she stood before him ready to face her death the same way he saw her face each day of her life.  He wondered why she had returned to receive her punishment.  She could have spent years using the search for his son as an excuse to prolong her life or she could have easily escaped his men sent and forced them to hunt her down, but she did none of those.  Why?
“I do not wish to take your life Zeundi for if anyone can find my son you can and time is imperative.  The palace physicians have determined my remaining time upon this earth is waning.  It is important that Kasir takes his place before I die.”
“Great Ahmed,” She managed to reply through stiff lips. “Prince Kasir is unwilling to change his actions against his people.  His behavior is not to be condoned as acceptable.”   Zeundi spoke honestly.
“Do not speak to me thus!  You are in no position to tell ME, your master, what you will and will not put up with, Koruma Zeundi!”  Ahmed slammed his fist down on the arm of his chair.  “Kasir has failed to become my successor because of all the negative rumors that have hounded him over the past few years.”
“It tis more than rumors, Great One,” Zeundi spoke her thoughts aloud.
“Even though may be so.  It is too late for me to find another heir.  I have vested much into assuring Sultan Mohammed IV will approve my bid for Kasir to take the seat of Eastern Anatolia, once the current Emir in office succumbs to his fate.”  Ahmed stated.  He had already dispatched assassins to assure the seat would become readily available for his son so that he could leave for Amasya as soon as possible.
He continued, “As long as the prince remains after the announcement, the new Vizier will do as I did in the past.  He will kill Kasir for fear of an uprising of the people who seek to place my son to rule in this territory at the Sultan’s side.”
“If Kara Mustafa becomes the next Great Vizier, he will hear the protesting cries of the people of Amasya and realize that Prince Kasir is not a threat to his position as Vizier.” Zeundi boldly corrected.  “He will know that the prince is actually a threat to the people of Amasya into which I assure you, Great Ahmed, any ruler blessed in the name of the prophet would find it wise to kill your son for his crimes against his people and the teaching of his God.”
“Hamal kiz, slave girl,” Ahmed hissed.  “There are times I seek your blunt honesty, but this is not one of them.  Just because you have made up your mind to die Zeundi, it does not mean I could not make the last moments of your death and those that serve you in your quarters merciless.”
Zeundi bit down hard on her back teeth to keep from saying the words that should be said.  She knew exactly where Prince Kasir resided but to tell his father would mean death to many and she had already agreed to take the fall to save the innocent.
“I can see it in your eye that there is something you are keeping from me Zeundi.  Do you truly wish this much for death?”
 Ahmed pulled in a deep breath and wheezed.  His bloated body became racked with spasms and coughs causing his personal Koruma to rush forward and press a piece of black clothe to his mouth.   Black material was chosen to hide the fact that the Vizier was coughing up blood but it was no longer necessary, for now it was a known fact the old Vizier was dying.
“I am not afraid to die, Great Ahmed,” she reminded.  “There are worse things than death.”  Guarding your son is one of them, she thought to herself.
“This I know.  However what I can do is summons to have your beast one by one, starting with your personal companion beast Sheba, slaughtered.”
Zeundi’s breath caught in throat.  “Affedersiniz, forgive me, Great Ahmed.  I bid thee a thousand blessings upon your divine name and may Allah bless you with a longer life,” Zeundi proclaimed.  “I beg you not to fault the brute beasts of the earth for my behavior.”
As expected, she touched her middle and forefinger to her forehead, lips and heart with a slight bow while adding a silent prayer that Allah would forgive her for asking for blessings upon a man she truly felt no loyalty to.
“I knew that would gain your attention,” Ahmed said with a stroke of his beard.  He was pleased he still had the upper hand, even over one as dangerous as the woman that stood before him.
“As you love your pet panthers Zeundi, I feel the same protectiveness of my son.  If I die before he returns, he will return to sure death,” he wheezed.  “If Prince Kasir is safely returned to me, I will grant you and those that serve you, along with the beasts, their freedom upon my death.”
Zeundi judgmentally eyed the aging and ill Kemal Ahmed while she mulled over his offer, even though she knew it was impossible to grant his wish.  Personally, she found him a miserably inadequate figure of a man even when he was of good health.  This man held high power and was very dangerous.  He spent years scheming and endearing himself to the Sultan’s weaknesses for finely bred horses and exceptional hunting falcons by breeding both. 
Sultan Mehmed IV had only been seven when he had gained the throne and because of his youth the power fell into the hands of his Grand Viziers.  Now the Sultan was a man grown of forty-eight years and still he didn’t have the heart of a ruler.  He was a simple man, with simple pleasures and he spent most of his time away on hunting expeditions from the intrigue of his royal court.   Because of that, the Vizier was allowed to continue ruling with the aided favors of Valide Sultan Hadice Turhan, the mother of the reigning sultan.
Though none would call Kemal Ahmed an attractive man with his current stooped shoulders and bloated appearance; his menacing height and hawkish features had once been well-favored.  During his youth, it was rumored he and the Valide had been secret lovers after her husband died. 
But if Zeundi were to make a guess she would say his health issues were due to his indulgent behavior.  Ahmed was excessive about everything; never one for accepting a refusal of his wishes.  His notably lustful and avarice appetites consist of women, power and an unending compulsion to drink too much wine. 
Ahmed’s harem at last count had over five hundred concubines in resident and another two hundred female slaves and three-hundred Black Eunuchs to attend them.  Continuously he ordered his army to drag children from their families to begin their training as future Korumas for the palace; Eunuchs for the harem and troops for his ever growing army that was needed to protect the palaces along the Bosphorus, Istanbul straits. 
The Vizier’s coffers were guarded by a family of panthers and tigers Zeundi had trained herself and inside the underground cave vault there were gold, silver and valuable relics of antiquity to be found.   Ahmed hadn’t been forced to part with any of his wealth when Sultan Mehmed IV called for his courtiers’ treasures to pay for his costly hunting expeditions.
Ahmed’s brutality was well known and all with the approval of a distrustful imperium that was quickly losing the respect of its people.  Unscrupulously, he sent Janissaries out to the local Bedouin tribes to murder the adults and enslave their children in order to seize their squatter’s land.
Zeundi felt these people that suffered at Ahmed’s hands were her own for she had been born in this area to a Nubian enslaved mother and an unknown father. She didn’t remember any of her childhood before Lady Chiyome.  She had been told she was no more than five winters old when scared and in chains she arrived to her first remembered master, Lady Chiyome.
For the first five years in her new home in the Nazu Village of Japan, she lived as a child learning languages and doing physical activities and she was happy until it all changed.  On her tenth birthday, her new master renamed her Zeundi and explained the course of what her life was about to become. 
If Zeundi had any doubts about her new role, they were dashed when her training as an assassin and a courtesan began with a witnessed rape ordered by the Japanese woman she’d come to think of as her “mother.” 
Lade Chiyome Mochizuki gave her and three other girls to the General and his troops.  They abused her body until a transcendent most welcoming numbness overcame her mind, body and spirit.  It announced the end to her childhood.
After she and the other three girls survived their ordeal, their sisterhood grew into an unbreakable bond as they grew older and stronger.  They also learned the key for survival was to obey their master, Lady Chiyome.  In their common misery she, Sauda, Eman and Ntombi grew into an unstoppable team of assassins, kunoichi.
As a kunoichi, female assassin, she became skilled at tracking, disguises, poisons, explosive powders, blades, and of course…seduction.  From the time Zeundi had obtained her skills as an assassin, even her role as slave to master didn’t diminish the pride that came with her awareness that she was a skilled killer. 
She also discovered she had a way with wild cats, bringing her master to code name her Kurohyou, Black Panther.  In Japan, Zeundi had been praised and revered for her abilities.  Since arriving in Amasya under the hand of her new master, she had been demoted to the mundane duties of watching over a useless excuse of a man.
At first Zeundi thought it was a blessing Lady Chiyome sold her to Vizier Ahmed, for it meant she was allowed to live.  However, as Prince Kasir’s personal guardian in the past years, she had witnessed and covered up deeds that made her wish a thousand times that she had died the day she was sold away from the only home she’d known. 
She had no respect for her masters.  She had thought she had witnessed everything there was to see, but even she had her limits to what she could ignore. The depraved nature of the Prince was one that even she could not condone and because of it, it was not possible for her life to be spared for the sake of his return.
“I cannot return Prince Kasir to you, Great Lord Ahmed,” she finally spoke.
The burly soldat, soldier, standing guard next to the Vizier stepped forward with a scepter poised for a strike when Ahmed held up his hand to halt his movement.
“Subside Abu; the Zeundi will kill you before your weapon descends a blow.  If the Kurohyou is to die, she must do so willingly or I will lose many men before she is brought to heel.  Isn’t that correct?”
“Hawa, yes, Great One,” she inclined her head in agreement.  Zeundi’s olive colored eyes never left Abu’s face.  She didn’t trust him and he greatly disliked her because she had held the Vizier’s respect in her abilities as a Royal Koruma Gormak all these years while he continued to struggle in the ranks as a simple soldat, soldier.
“Since you refuse to find my son, you leave me no choice,” Ahmed said.  He sadly shook his jeweled turbaned head.
“I await your will.”
“Zeundi, you are magnificent and you have brought great pride and excitement to this old heart.  I pray to Allah that you change your mind or that my son returns in time to save you from your fate.”
“Thank you, Grand Ahmed, however I fear my death is decided.” 
“May I ask one thing of you?”
“Until my last breath I am yours,” she voiced solemnly.
Ahmed let out a long labored breath.  “Allow me to witness your fighting abilities one last time in the arena.”
“Will this be a fight to the death or entertainment only, Great One?”
“Is there a difference?”  He cocked a bushy eyebrow.  Smiling, he ordered, “Do your best and make a clean kill; however do not be hasty.  I bid you give us a good final show, Zeundi.”
“I shall do my best,” Zeundi assured in a matter-of-fact tone.  “Mayhap, Soldat Abu would like to do the honor,” she suggested eyeing the tall and broad shoulder Turk.
“You wish that Abu be the one to kill you if you succeed the match?”  Ahmed asked.
“I am asking if Abu would like to fight me as my opponent in the battle to the death.”
“I do not wish to lose both my strongest opponents in one day, Zeundi.”
“Please allow me, Great Ahmed,” Abu spoke up.  “I know I can handle this mere woman.”
“Abu have you already forgotten my warning?”  Ahmed asked.  “Are you infidel?  If this was a mere woman we were dealing with, you think I would be gaining her honorable word to participate in her demise?”
“Affedersiniz, forgive me.  I did not mean to speak out of turn, Great Ahmed,” Abu murmured. 
Ahmed could only nod.  His body shook with a seizure of coughs and Abu rushed forward.  Instead of allowing Abu to care for him, he motioned for and accepted the black cloth into his hand to hold it against his mouth until the attack subsided.
Leaning forward his voice was almost a graveled whisper. “Zeundi, because of your immense accomplishments I know that if you so wish to fight for your life and escape your fate, you will undoubtedly succeed against my men.  Or at the very least I will lose the few remaining soldat I have protecting my home that is not on campaign for the Sultan.”  More coughs.  “Heed my warning, Kurohyou, Black Panther, if you choose to betray me.  All of the precious beasts you covet more than human life will be slaughtered.”
Zeundi felt a cold twisting feeling in her stomach.  For the first time, concern appeared in her eyes and she could see by Ahmed’s satisfied sneer he found pleasure in her fear.
Ahmed’s bloated frame dropped back against the cushions in satisfaction.  Never had he met a woman that was as wild and intriguing as the cats she trained and coveted.  If he had been a younger man when he obtained such a prize as Zeundi, he would have made her his concubine.   It was why he had made her his son’s private bodyguard.  However, even Zeundi’s skilled charms and beautiful face and lithe boyish figure didn’t sway his son from his perversions.
Ahmed regretted ending the life of one as competent as Zeundi, but she left him no choice.  If it got out that he had let her get away with such insubordinate behavior, he’d lose control of his station and all he hoped to pass on to his son before his death.  She had to die so that others would see even amongst his favorites he would bear no tolerance for failure.   
“I give you my word, Great Ahmed.”  Zeundi broke the sudden silence.  “I ask that you do the same and allow me to go in peace knowing that my assistant, Hagee, will continue caring for my felines.”
“Agreed.”  He leaned back against the pillows at his back.  “Is there something else you would ask of me?”
“My feline companion Sheba will be inconsolable without me to tend to her and she does not accept food from another’s hands.  She I will take with me into the netherworld.”
“Go prepare yourself for the arena Koruma Zeundi.  You will fight when the sun kisses midday.”  He pursed his lips with pensive thoughts and added, “If you change your mind about finding my son, it is not too late to save yourself.”
“Very well, Great Ahmed, however it’s not possible.”
“Leave me!” He barked in disgust triggering another round of coughs.
She touched her forehead, lips and heart before backing formally away from her master with head bowed until she put a proper distance between them.  Lifting her head she readjusted the yasmak, consisting of two pieces of fine white muslin covering her head; the upper piece was tied around her forehead and the lower piece draped over one shoulder.
Turning, Zeundi sauntered from the Vizier’s private quarters deciding to meditate and make peace with Allah before preparing physically to give the blood thirsty crowd one last performance before succumbing to her fate.
 
ZZZ
 
The roar of voices, the barking of dogs and the stench of human occupancy were almost overbearing in the arid region heat.  Sir Lucian Gilbert, bejeweled and in guise as a traveling merchant, held a perfumed scented handkerchief to his nostrils to keep from gagging as he passed a legless beggar sitting in his own feces.
Turban adorned men and petite women, shrouded in voluminous black with kohl lined eyes, babbled in their native tongue and giggled while casting subtle glances of interest as they passed.   Focused on his mission to gain an audience with Vizier Ahmed, he barely spared them a glance.
It seemed as if he’d spent a lifetime preparing to return to this cursed country.  During his last stay, he allowed his blinding desire to find his mother during an important mission for the Secret Service of Queen Elizabeth’s Court to overrule his senses; because of it, his closest friend Lord Ethan Clare was the one that had suffered for his carelessness.
Turkish soldiers molested and tortured his friend to near death before releasing him for a momentous amount of gold.  Lucian knew Ethan wanted to return with him, but he was thankful that he was alone.  This time he didn’t have to worry over others; nor would he ask anyone else to risk their lives for the sake of gaining peace about the circumstances that surrounded his birth.  He would never discover who his father is if he couldn’t find his mother.
Even if he were to manage to speak with the Vizier, he had to walk lightly over the subject matter of his missing mother for the ostentatious ass had the Sultan in his pocket.  If he couldn’t get an audience with the Vizier, he would never get to the valide sultan, Hadice Turhan.  Valide Hadice was the one person that would know what happened to his mother.   
Also Lucian couldn’t chance having his ship confiscated with its precious cargo of precious jewels, silver and gold he’d amassed over the years in hopes of bartering his mother’s freedom if she is still alive.
As the Amasya territory councilman, Ahmed's greediness was well known.  He had been involved in countless extortion plots and acts of corruption against his own citizens.  Vizier Ahmed was also known for bargaining secretly with foreign and local representatives and in return he could guarantee an immediate audience with the Sultan. 
It was this bribable behavior Lucian was counting on to get an audience with the Sultan. 
With certainty in each step, Lucian blended in with the locals and followed the flow of the majority.  There was some big event scheduled up ahead and whatever it was, it was important enough to bring out the dregs of Amasya to witness it.  At this snail’s pace he wondered if he would make it to the palace before the palace closed to visiting merchants bearing gifts.
Lucian cursed aloud as a young boy plowed into him.  Instinctively his hand went to the gold laden money pouch resting against his hip, just in time to feel the young boy attempting to cut the cord tied to his dagger belt.
“Essoglu esek, son of a donkey!”  Lucian growled in flawless Turkish as he caught the small hand that held the small dirk.  Angrily he twisted the boy’s hand with his until the blade hit the ground. 
The scrap of a boy actually started pounding at him with his balled up fist.  Lucian would have found his efforts comical if he hadn’t received a well-placed kick to his booted shin.
“It would serve you right if I used that dull blade and cut your fingers off as a reminder of your foolishness.”  The child kicked him again.  “Ulan!  Look here, that is enough!”  Lucian yelped and shook the boy until he stopped struggling.
The boy’s dark eyes were as wide as clay-pots staring up at him.  The instant look of fear that showed on his face startled Lucian.
“Forgive me, Good Prince Kasir, I did not know it was you!  I beg you!  Do not order my death!”  He pleaded as he dropped to his knees with Lucian still holding onto his thin wrists. 
Lucian’s angry frown deepened with his revelation.  Who did he think he was?  Prince Kasir?  He thinks I am the Vizier’s son?  Why?
“Praise to…to Allah…and Mohammad, His Prophet, for you! The most exalted Prince of all Princely kingdoms under the sun.   You Prince Kasir are kind of heart and most blessed.  If you spare this poor boy born of camel’s dung…”
“Quiet yourself.”
 “You must allow me to live, Master.  I steal money only to feed my starving family!  Benimle sevismek ister misin?  You may use my body.  You may--” 
“Enough!  I have no desire to have sex with you!  You are just a child, a boy child, I remind thee!  How do you even know of such things?”  Lucian balked at the absurdity of the boy’s wailings.  
“I give my word, Lord Prince.  In exchange for my life, I will gladly become one of your boy concubines and serve you well!”  The child continued to wail.
Boy concubine?  Lucian found the thought very distasteful.  Releasing a long sigh he realized his reasoning with the boy wasn’t working and he was drawing attention from those around them.  He had to try another tactic. 
“Rise from your knees boy and tell me your name.”  He ordered in his most princely voice while releasing his grip on his wrists.  Maybe he could use this mistaking of his identity to gain some useful information.
Swiftly the child came up on his bare dirty feet. A glimpse of startling white teeth appeared as his face split into a grin.  At least his teeth appeared white in comparison to the dark griminess of his youthful face.
“Rahim, but my family calls me Ram.”
“Ram, I think I will have use for you after all.”  Lucian eyed him from his black curly hair dusted a sandy brown from lack of daily cleaning in the dusty elements.
“You do?” Ram croaked.
“Would you care to turn an honest coin, by servicing my needs?”
 “I care very much and I know I should be honored that you have chosen me to…to…err…service you, Prince Kasir…but…”
Ram looked down at his feet, his toe kicking at the dirt.
Lucian scowled wondering what was bothering the child and obviously the child was thinking it was something this “Prince Kasir” person wouldn’t like hearing, making him hesitant to speak frankly. 
Lucian softened his tone and asked.  “What is on your mind, Rahim?  If we are to work together, don’t you believe we should be able to speak our minds and trust one another?”
“Yes, Master.  However, I have never…let any man…well you know--”
“No I do not know.  Just say it, boy.”
“Well, I have heard tales that may be tall.  But I have heard it said none the less and I don’t know if it is true.”
“Come about, Ram,” Lucian sighed.  Growing impatient he added, “I do not have all day.  What rumors have you heard about…Prince Kasir?”
“Master, you do not want me!”  He began to well as he had done earlier.  “I do not want to give you my body!  He dropped to his knees once more clasping his hands together as if he was praying.  “I know you do not want an ugly, filthy and mangy runt sheep’s dung like me in your silken bed.”
Lucian was too stunned for a speedy reply.  A feeling of panic arose in his throat as those around him stopped to stare.  Obviously, all were beginning to think he was Prince Kasir for they were whispering and pointing amongst themselves. 
Even a few of the unfamiliar faces he stared into looked at him as if he had spouted a second nose.
“A pox to the lot of you, worrisome coxcombs gaping at me as if I am all the infection that a leech sucks from a horse’s ass,” Lucian murmured in his native language.
He wished he’d let the idiot child go forward to his next quarry and had gone about his business.  By and by it was too late now.
“I do not want to be your sex slave!”  Ram cried, genuine tears streaking his dirty face.
“What are you saying?  That is not true!”  Lucian lapsed back into the Turkish language shaking his head in denial.  He tried to peel the boy’s arms from his leg that he’d latched onto when Lucian tried to move away.
“I want to work for my Lord Prince, but I’m too unclean for you to bugger my ass,” Ram rallied. 
Lucian could hear heckling and stirring from the crowd as they called out Prince Kasir’s name.  Obviously the man wasn’t likable to anyone in Amasya.
“I will care for your fine garments; taste your meals to assure no poison is in the contents.  I will even wipe your ass with my unworthy hands, Master.  Just do not stick your thing in my ass!”  Ram went on staring about him.  The more sympathy he got from the onlookers, the more dramatic he became.
“My thing?  God’s blood!”  Lucian’s face grew ruddy with embarrassment.  He held up his hand above his head.  “I have not touched this boy.”  Clearing his throat he called out, “Please, everyone go about your business, there is nothing to see here.” 
The crowd hesitated and lingered staring at the distraught boy.   Lucian knew as long as the boy was putting on the performance of his life, they would remain.  So he resorted to his princely voice once more.
“Go, before all of you are imprisoned for aiding this thief!” 
Seeing how the crowd scattered, he wished he had thought to threaten them long before now.  The damage had already been done.  He would have to change his appearance in some way if he looked so similar to the prince when dressed as an Italian merchant.
“Quiet down all that squalling, runt!” he hissed grasping the boy harshly by the shoulders until he unhandled him.  Lucian then drew him up off the ground holding him under his armpits until they were nose to nose. 
“Rahim,” Lucian cursed in disgust.  “I cannot believe you would think such a thing of me.  I was trying to be kind and you repay my kindness with an insult?  I do not know what devices this Prince Kasir has but I do not have any intentions to do such a sick and vile thing.”  Bile arose in the back of his throat at the very thought of such an action.  “I was offering you a job to show me about and run errands for me when I cannot do so myself.”
The boy looked up with dark wide innocent eyes and Lucian felt his heart go out to him.  Maybe his distress was sincere and not some ploy after all.  He’d crossed paths with such lover of boys and it was a vile feeling to be mistaken for one of them.
“Forgive me, Grand Prince.  But I do not believe you are not Prince Kasir.  Have you been in the sun too long or mayhap been thrown from a horse and hit your head?”
 With a soft curse, he grasped the boy by his arms pulling him upward off his knees as he straightened.  Without another word, he half walked and half carried the whimpering youth next to a market stand and out of the main walkway. 
“I will not repeat myself.  Firstly, I will not harm you.  Well, an occasional boxing of your ears…but, it will be for your own good.”  He shook him lightly to emphasize his statement.  “Secondly, if you vow your loyalty to me, I will make sure your family has food and also pay you wages to guide me.”  Murmuring in English he added, “You can be sure your bottom is safe from me, boy.”
“Bilmiyorum, I don’t understand,” Ram looked up at him in confusion.
“Not important.”
“I shall follow you to the ends of the earth for continued wages, Prince Kasir.”  Ram stated with a wide smile. His small shoulders drew back with burgeoning confidence as he declared, “Prince Kasir, Exalted One, I will even allow you my body to do your will if it will feed my sisters and brothers.  I am the eldest, you see.”
Lucian rolled his eyes heavenward and released a silent prayer for patience.  He smiled down at the boy and felt pride.  Since finding out Ethan was going to be a father with Sauda, his thoughts had been straying to wife and children of his own.  Could it be possible?  What if his finding out about his father proves to be a good enough reason for not having children of his own?
He wondered how he could be a good father when he never had a good role model.  What if he grew tired of the family life and abandoned his son to his fate as his father had obviously done to him?  
One of the things he needed to do at this moment was convince the boy he wasn’t this Prince Kasir and he wasn’t in the least bit interested in molesting him.
“It is good of you to be brave enough to go to extreme extents for your family, Ram and that is what I am looking for in an apprentice.  What I am about to tell you must strictly remain between you and I.  I will not hire you unless I know I have your complete loyalty.”
“I promise I will take all that you tell me to my grave or may you cut out my tongue to keep me from telling,” the boy declared with melodramatic steadfastness.
Lucian shook his head. “Let’s hope we do not have to go that far.  Just keep in mind, if you wish to earn a gold coin you will remain loyal.”
“Gold you say,” Ram repeated in hushed tones.  He bobbed his head in agreement.
“Ram, I am truly not Prince Kasir.”
“By Allah’s blood!  You look like Prince Kasir.”
“I am a merchant from Italy.  My name is Luciano Gilberto,” he lied smoothly. 
It was not the full truth, but not a complete falsehood either.  It was a history and a persona he had been building for over ten years while working in the Queen’s Secret Service; a simple manipulation of his name and a fictional life based on his profession outside the military service.  It was a necessity in order to move about and complete missions in places born Englishmen were not welcomed.
“How can this be that you look so much like the prince?  Yet you say you are not born of his blood?”  Ram asked.
“I have not seen the prince so I cannot say that I look like him, but apparently it is close enough resemblance that you and others believe me to be him.”
Ram’s dark brown eyes narrowed, “What form of trickery is this?”  He demanded placing his fists on his slim hips.  “Are you saying this so you can pay me less?  Siktir!”
“Where did you learn such language?”  Lucian boxed his ears as promised.  “I have not even told you how much I will pay you!  You know it is not too late to rescind my offer.  I thought you wanted to work to feed your starving family.”
“I do,” Ram pouted.  He rubbed the sides of his head and ears. “Ow, that hurts.”
“You are probably not only a thief, but a liar too,” Lucian accused.  “Just be on your way, you ungrateful runt.” 
“I do not lie!”
Lucian crossed his arms over his chest and scoffed.   “Never?”
“Well, I…I lie when I must,” Ram admitted.
“Of course you do.  Everyone does.  Now, I think you should apologize for your offensive use of language.”  Lucian lifted a dark eyebrow, his piercing gray eyes narrowing in final warning.   “Right now or move on to your next victim.”
Ram pouted and his shoulders dropped yielding a long sigh.  “Bir, I am sorry I said…siktir, fuck you.  I will hold my tongue with my fingers if I have to, Master.”
“If you do not, then I will pull it out for you and place it between your fingers myself.”  Lucian chuckled and mussed the boy’s unwashed hair. 
 “You did not have to hit me,” Ram pointed out.
“I am sure it will not be the last time.”  Lucian promised.  “Now that you know I am a lowborn merchant, do you still want the work or not?”
“Depends,” the little snip had the nerve to say.
“On what, pray tell.”
“Are you a rich merchant or a poor one?” 
Lucian chuckled at the boy’s arrogant posture.  His thin arms crossed about his chest as if he was in charge of this deal. 
“I do well enough.  Albeit, if you do not think it is good enough for you, then you can keep thieving until you lose your hands to someone not as kind as I am.  Iyi aksamlar, good evening, Genc Efendim, Young Sir.”  Lucian turned on his booted feet and left the boy standing there.
“Where are you going?  I might know a way to get there quicker instead of walking through the square,” Ram stated as he walked and ran to keep up with Lucian’s long strides.
Lucian glanced down at his new companion.  “I need to get to the palace before the gate closes to all merchants.”
“I can get you there faster, but it will not close until late this day.” 
Lucian stopped.  “What is different about today?”
“There is a special event in the Vizier’s arena.  That is why it is busier than usual.  It will be a good day for the merchants to peddle your wares.  What do you sell?”
“Also, a good day for you to pinch bulging coin pouches.”  Lucian teasingly replied ignored his question.
Ram grinned.  “That is why I know everything that is happening.  This would have been a good day if your hands hadn’t been quicker than my own.  You don’t move like any merchant I’ve known.”
“I do not wish to get fat and lazy as many in my profession so I keep my wits about me.”
“Do you know how to use that dagger at your waist?”
“I do.”
“Can you teach me?”
“Only if your intent is to change your life around to be helpful instead of pouring hardships onto others in order to lighten your own,” Lucian reasoned.
“I will not be your servant.  I’ll be your apprentice and you shall teach me,” Ram announced with a nodding of his head.
“Then as my apprentice it will serve you to remember I never say things I don’t mean. Also, don’t let me have to tell you my will more than once.  Do we understand one another?”
“Evet, but I don’t want to disappoint you, Master.  Are you sure I can do the job?”
 Lucian smiled.  “Of course I’m sure.  Any boy that can almost relieve me of my money pouch is skilled indeed and brave.”   In spite of his occasional show of bravado, Ram was still just a boy and had all of the same doubts and fears.  “By the way, how old are you?”
“Seven seasons, Master.”
“Then you have plenty of time to learn how to be a righteous man and bring honor to your family, Rahim.”  Lucian assured him.
“About that,” Ram looked down at his feet.  “I do not really have a family.  I live with a family that forces me to steal so that I may have a roof over my head.”
“I see.”  Lucian lips pursed in thought.  “So if you do not take something back to this family this night, you have no home to return to?”
Ram nodded.
“No worries.  You are my apprentice and an apprentice must attend their master at all times.  So of course that means you go where I go.”
“Evet, Master Luciano, I shall be better than the Sultan’s best slave.  You shall see.  I promise I will be loyal till my death.”
“No need.  If you remain loyal to me until the end of this journey, it shall be enough for I will not be staying here any longer then I must.  Save your earnings so that you can care for yourself when I am gone.”  Lucian stated already feeling a mite homesick for laughter and mead with his friend Ethan while swapping tales of adventures with Ethan’s new bride about her and her assassin sisters.
“Maybe, if I do really well, I can go too!”
“We shall see.  For now, seeing how the outer gates will remain open, how about we get you bathed with some new garments to fit your new station?”
“Evet, Master!”
“By and by what is this special event you speak of happening this evening?”
“Koruma Zeundi, Prince Kasir’s bodyguard, is to put on a final sparring match against prisoners before she is executed.”
Lucian forehead creased in a frown.  “She, you say?  Is she battling other female prisoners?”
“Zeundi fights only men.  You should see her and she has a pet that fights along her side!”  He spoke excitedly.  “I do not know any kadin, woman that is as great a fighter as she.”
“My friend, Sauda, is such a woman; and from the tales she’s told, there are at least three more women that I know of that could take on men in a fight,” Lucian confided.
By the dancing lights of excitement glinting in Rahim’s eyes Lucian could see he had impressed him.  He grinned. 
“You will tell me these tales, Master?”  The young boy nodded trotting to keep up with Lucian’s long strides.
“If you work hard and follow directions well, we will see,” Lucian bargained.  “What else do you know about this Guardian Zeundi, Ram?”
 “I spoke to her once or rather she boxed my ears for sneaking into the arena without paying.  She was on her way to the arena when I accidentally ran into her as I was sneaking inside.  Then her giant Eunuch kole, slave wrapped his huge hand about my scrawny neck and squeezed!”  He said excitedly with his small hand animatedly demonstrating the ordeal.  “He shook me until my teeth rattled.  I thought the kole would break my neck and with one hand!”
“I bet you were frightened.”
“Sıcıp sıvamak, I nearly shit on myself,” Ram colorfully regaled and grinned sheepishly up as Lucian’s eyes narrowed on his face in a warning stare.
“We must work on your language too, it seems Rahim.”
“Evet, yes, Master!”   Ram nodded.  “I must be the best apprentice.  I will be so good that you cannot do anything without me.”
“Damn-all likely,” Lucian murmured.
“Huh?”  Ram paused in his walking and touched his arm.  “What is the language you speak?”
“The Queen’s English.”
“What Queen, Master?”
“It is the Tudor Queen, Elizabeth.”
“This is your queen?”
Lucian started to answer truthfully and remembered his guise. 
“Queen Elizabeth is the Queen of England and I am a merchant from Italy remember?  These are two different countries, Ram.”
Ram’s youthful face took on a serious expression.  “I hear this language often spoken in the Merchant’s Square.  I do believe many understand this Queen’s English language which means she must be very important.  It is good to learn this language, evet, yes?”
“If you are thinking of coming along with me, it will be very wise to learn, yes.”  Lucian started walking again towards the booth he’d passed earlier that had readymade clothing for children.  If Rahim worked out for him, he would have some more garments made for him befitting his station. 
“You will teach me?”
“Teach you what?”
“The language of this Great Queen of England,” Ram answered.
“We will learn a few words a day, starting with evet means yes.”
“Yes!”  Ram repeated enthusiastically.
Going back to the subject that continued to plague him he asked, “You said earlier that this kadin, woman, Zeundi has ‘pets’ that fight beside her.”  Lucian frowned.  He didn’t like the path his thoughts were taking but truthfully how many women with the ability to hold their own against men existed.  He trusted more than he imagined but what if… “Ram, what type of pet has she?”
“A huge…” he spread his thin brown arms wide.  “Pars, panther.”
Lucian stopped walking.  Ram had walked at least three paces before he realized he was walking alone.
“Master,” Ram jogged back to Lucian’s side as he turned to go back in the direction from hence he came.  “What is it?”
“Rahim, is there another name this Koruma Zeundi is called.”
“Before she was made into the Prince’s personal guard in the fighting circle they called her--”
“Kurohyou, the Black Panther,” Lucian filled in.
“Evet! I mean, yeh-sss…Yes.  Do you know of her, Master?”
“I know that she is very special to someone who is special to me, Ram.”  Lucian answered as he rushed forward through the crowd unapologetic for rudely pushing them aside; but it wasn’t long before the mottle of people parted like the red sea as he got closer to the Palace gates. 
This was done mostly because they believed him to be Prince Kasir.  The closer he got, the more he heard the name being murmured.  Whenever he looked towards someone, they averted their eyes respectfully. 
Lucian also realized Ram was breathing hard from trying to keep up, but if he was right and this woman was one of the “sisters” Sauda spoke often about, he felt duty bound to save her.
He had no clue how he was going to accomplish this at a social gathering with soldiers around at the moment but he had to do something or he would never be able to face his best friend’s wife again.  How could he tell her he stood by and did nothing while someone she loved was executed and he didn’t even know why.
“Ram, what crimes have this woman committed that she is to be executed for doing it?”
“Prince Kasir is missing and she is to die for not protecting him from whatever fate he has met.”
“So all of this is taking place because of this missing camel dong of a prince that no one seems to ever want to see again?”
“Yes, master.  That is true; even though Prince Kasir frightens me because all that I have heard, I would wish to see him again if it would save Koruma Zeundi.  It is said she is a friend of the people.”
“A friend of the people?”  Lucian asked.
“It is said that Kurohyou is going to her death today because she chose to accept all blame.  She is thwarting the Vizier from taking his wrath out on the people for the missing prince.”
“I do not understand the connection.  Does your village have something to do with Prince Kasir’s disappearance?”
“Ozur dilerim, I am sorry, Master. I do not know more,” he fretted.  “What can Ram do for you?”
“You can tell me all you have heard of late about this Prince Kasir.  How was his relationship with his father before he came up missing? Is it believed he was taken or did he leave the palace and has of yet failed to return?   I know much about Vizier Ahmed, but unfortunately, I did not feel the need to research his son.”
Lucian hadn’t realized how much he was revealing in his words until Ram surprised him with his questions.
“Kimsin, who are you?  You are like no merchant I have ever seen.”  There was nothing accusing about his tone, just open curiosity.
“I will tell you all about it someday, but for now we save the woman.”
“How do we save Koruma Zeundi?”
“If the Vizier is killing the woman because of his missing son then we must let him see his son has returned home,” Lucian grinned down at Ram.
“How do we do this?”
“If you and these people think I am Prince Kaiser, then my presence should at least distract others enough for you to sneak inside the area you ran into Koruma Zeundi and tell her to escape.”
“What if it is too late and I cannot find her?”  Ram asked his voice shrieking as his fear grew.  “What if I run into the eunuch again or worst that pet cat of hers?”
“Ram, do you think you can do as I ask or not?  I will not think ill of you if you have changed your mind about being my apprentice.” 
“Hayir, no! Rahim is your learner!”  He assured Lucian before inquiring, “Tell me how to please you.  I will do it.”
“If the event has not started, you will sneak in and try to find Koruma Zeundi and if it has already started, go back to calling me Prince Kasir and I need you to do that wailing façade you used on me to draw attention again once we get to the gatepost.”
He heard Ram’s gasp of surprise.  With a chuckle, he reached out and ruffled the boy’s curly hair.
 
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