When the Duke Returns(10)

By: Eloisa James





“Donot address the duke with such familiarity,” the duchess snapped at Godfrey.



Simeon winked at his brother and pulled open the front door before Honeydew could reach it. Then he tore down the steps, leaving his family temporarily behind.



Two minutes later he was running down a neglected lane behind his estate. The estate could fairly well be summed up by the wordneglected . He pushed that unpleasant thought away and fell into the physical pleasure of feeling his legs pound against the ground, his heart race, the wind tug his hair back from his head.



He had learned about running for pleasure, rather than for escape, from an Abyssinian mountain king named Bahrnagash. To cross into Abyssinia by the mountain pass, one must appease Bahrnagash. Given that the man was famous for putting strangers to death and dividing their possessions among his tribesmen, Simeon had been a bit concerned.



When Simeon was challenged to a race—the reward for winning being his life and the lives of his men—he thought he had a decent chance. Bahrnagash turned out to be a little man with a close-shaven head, wearing a cowl and a pair of short trousers. He had to be fifty years old. He wore no shoes, and showed no inclination to remove his coarse girdle, into which was stuck a heavy knife. Simeon estimated he could run his way to freedom.



They gathered in the great courtyard of the mountain fortress. Simeon’s cavalcade cheered with all the lustiness of men wildly outnumbered, and picturing themselves sliced open from gullet to gizzard. Bahrnagash’s men cheered with the enthusiasm of men seeing horses for the first time, and knowing a good thing when they saw it.



A gun cracked—and Bahrnagash leapt away like a man possessed. He ran up the pass as if he were a mountain goat. Simeon ran after, head down, heart pounding.



Bahrnagash ran straight up, leaping from rock to rock. Simeon followed, his longer legs allowing him to cover ground quickly, though his lungs were burning.



Bahrnagash was in his stride now, and they ran on and on. The air was thin and Simeon’s head started swimming. He thought blearily that he couldn’t possibly win the race, so he might as well die trying.



Three hours later Simeon collapsed. Bahrnagash hesitated, waited, returned. Simeon’s chest hurt so much that he thought there might be blood in his lungs.



After a while, he sat up and asked whether Bahrnagash intended to stab him and leave his body for the jackals, or whether they would return to the fortress first.



Bahrnagash was picking his teeth with his great knife. He grinned, every huge white tooth visible. No challenger had ever survived three hours, and rather than kill Simeon, Bahrnagash thought he’d like to have him in his army.



It took several weeks for Simeon to convince his new mentor to let him continue into Abyssinia. “No one even knows why they are fighting in that country,” Bahrnagash told him grumpily, “but they always are. They will have your head for no reason.” Simeon didn’t bother to point out that his welcome could hardly be less dangerous than that of the mountain king himself.



When Simeon finally left, he took with him the traditional insignia of a provincial governor, a lasting friendship—and a penchant for running.



Running cleared his mind. It energized his body. He meant to get Godfrey onto the road in the next few days; the poor boy was a bit tubby around the middle. Godfrey needed exercise as much as he needed male companionship.



Simeon let himself run another mile before taking out the fact that his father was dead and thinking about it.



He’d known his father was dead, of course. The news reached him relatively soon after the event, a mere two months after the funeral. Simeon had been traveling through Palmyra, going to Damascus. He had ducked into an English church that loomed up on a Damascene street and offered prayers.



But it wasn’t until he walked through the door of Revels House that he really understood. His burly father—the man who had thrown him in the air, and thrown him on a horse, and thrown him out of the hay loft once for gross impertinence—that man was gone.



The house seemed like a dry well, empty and lifeless. His mother had turned into a shrill, screaming dictator. His little brother was plump and indolent. The estate was neglected. Even in the house itself, things were cracked and broken. The rugs were stained; the curtains were faded.



Whose fault is it? asked his conscience.



I’m here now, he retorted.



He was back in England, to clean up the estate, manage his family, meet his wife.



Hiswife.



Another subject that he could examine only cautiously. He’d probably mishandled their first meeting. She was the opposite of what he expected. The Middle Way taught that beauty was only an outward shell, but Isidore’s beauty flared from within, as potent as a torch. She was like a princess, only he’d never seen a princess who had all her teeth.

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