33. The Lady and her Lances

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Reuben looked up at Ayla, who stood in the doorway smiling, and was sure that not all his sweating came from the fever. Christ, she had only said his name and “hello”! What was the matter with him? His name was nothing special. Well, in fact, it was special. After all, it was the name of Sir Reuben Rachwild himself, but still—he had heard it often enough before. Why did it sound so special coming from her lips?

Appreciatively, his gaze swept over the ivory skin of her face and the maidenly figure concealed by the white dress she was wearing. Now that he thought about it, that could be enough reason for him to start sweating...

“Greetings, Milady,” he said with a smile so dazzling that it could charm the pants off anybody. And hopefully the skirts, too.

Ayla didn't lose her skirts, but she did blush and her smile broadened, which gave Reuben immense satisfaction. Never for a moment had he doubted the efficiency of his charms—but the girl, however intriguing she might be, was probably also not quite right in the head. Reuben hadn't forgotten the strange objects in her saddlebags that day he had robbed her in the forest, and he had been concerned whether his charms would affect a creature such as this. Apparently, they worked just as well on crazy girls as on normal people. How gratifying.

“You know, you don't always have to call me by my title,” Ayla chided him. “Most of the people I looked after at the nunnery where I learned the craft of healing never did, either.” But in spite of her words, Reuben could tell she was pleased by his use of the title. Some girls were like that, they liked respectful and old-fashioned manners. He thought she would be one of those, and he had been absolutely right.

“What if I want to?” he asked. “You are a beautiful young lady and deserve to be honored with the title. In fact, I would rather think 'queen' more appropriate than simply 'Milady'.”

This piece of flattery, however, didn't have its intended effect. Instead of fluttering her eyelashes at him suggestively, like any lady at the Imperial Court would have done, Ayla didn't even seem to register his compliment on her beauty. Instead, her face fell and she busied herself with the linen and water she had brought, so as not to have to meet his gaze.

“I'm no queen,” she mumbled. “I don't even deserve to be the lady of a castle. Now turn over, will you? I have to change your cataplasms.”

Reuben didn't move. “What's wrong?” he asked with a softness in his voice that surprised even himself.

Ayla's eyes flitted to the gray-bearded knight on the other bed.

“Oh.” Now Reuben understood. “My new roommate?”

“Yes,” Ayla whispered.

“But surely you don't blame yourself for that. He went onto the battlefield to protect you, to fulfill his oath of fealty. That he lies here isn't your fault, but the fault of the man who struck him down.”

“No, I don't blame myself for what happened, Reuben.”

He studied her face closely. “But you do blame yourself for something?”

“How is it you know me so well?” Ayla asked, seeming half annoyed, half amused.

“Well, you've had a pretty close look at me over the last few days. I've tried to do my best to return the favor,” he said, grinning up at her and lifting a suggestive eyebrow.

She smacked him with a wet cloth. “You be careful what you say or I'll stuff one of these down your throat!”

“Yes, Milady. Certainly, Milady.” He waited for a few moments, but when she didn't say anything, just continued her ministrations in silence, he asked: , “So, what is it you blame yourself for?”

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