37. Strategic Lesson

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Reuben only needed about half an hour of being back in the castle to notice that everyone's behavior towards him had changed dramatically. Before his little capture-and-torture escapade, everyone had treated him as if he might kill them at any moment. Now, they acted as if they knew he'd kill them at any moment and steal their souls while he was at it.

He thought it was a magnificent improvement. It was about time people started showing him some respect. Only the habit of some of the peasants of making the sign of the cross whenever he walked past was starting to irritate him. As if that would avail them against him!

"You there!"

He stuck his head into one of the barracks where the soldiers slept and passed their leisure hours—or at least they used to do the latter, before Reuben saw to it that they didn't have any.

Two soldiers, who were just gearing up for duty, looked around and stiffened at the sight of him.

"Yes, Sir?

"The chest I mentioned to you earlier? Bring it. Now. I will await you in the great hall of the keep. See to it that you are not late."

"Yessir!"

Without waiting around to see if they fulfilled his orders, Reuben turned and marched towards the keep. He made a few detours on the way, stopping to talk to the castle smith and a number of carpenters that resided here ever since the village had been destroyed. They were most amenable to his requests. Most amenable indeed. And they didn't even ask money for their services—imagine that.

Finally, Reuben entered the keep and, shortly afterwards, reached the doors to the great hall. He didn't knock. Who was there who would dare deny him entry? Besides, he had long ago formed the opinion that you got to see a lot of interesting things you would otherwise have missed if you always barged into rooms without asking for permission.

Once more, his opinion was confirmed. He pushed open the door, and, in the far left corner of the room, saw Ayla standing at one of the windows that granted a view of the Lunt Valley and beyond.

She didn't know he was watching her. Her face was soft, relaxed, even happy. And the fact that it was a happiness touched by a tiny spark of sadness, a glowing ember of worry, made her only look all the more beautiful. Her eyes, gazing into the distance, sparkled like the most beautiful sapphires he had ever seen, and the sunlight dancing on her hair made the golden strands shine like the gates of heaven.

Slowly, his eyes travelled down her form, over her gentle curves, over her stomach and to that area that area between her legs that held a particular interest for him. A grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. He'd be definitely inclined to compare that area to the gates of heaven. And he couldn't wait for them to open up.

Ayla squirmed, and looked around—although Reuben would swear he hadn't made a sound.

"Reuben! You're here."

"Yes, Milady."

"Why are you looking at me like that? Why are you smiling?"

"Oh, I'm just contemplating battle strategy." Sauntering over to the only table left in the hall, he placed the parchment in his hand on the table top and unrolled it. Placing candle holders at either end to fix it in place, he looked down at the map of Luntberg—the castle he would have to save. And for free, at that.

He gave a nostalgic shake of his head, remembering his good, old mercenary days. The hoards of gold he had amassed back then... And now he was reduced to a "thank you, Sir Knight" and a pat on a back! What a man would for love...

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