All Things Are Lights – Day 108 of 200

Gradually Roland’s mind moved from simple stunned grief to wondering how Diane had been killed. Had the man who fired those arrows wanted to spare her the pain of a death by fire, or was it really his purpose to kill Hugues? And above all, who was it?

After some weeks on Cyprus, he began to think of Nicolette. At first he felt that such thoughts betrayed Diane. But he came to realize that Diane would not feel that way. She had wanted him to be happy with Nicolette.

And so, little by little, his mind began to turn toward Nicolette as a flower turns toward the sun.

All his judgments of her — how wrong they had been! How could he condemn the decisions of a woman with a child, when he could not feel as desperately as she the need to protect herself and her baby? Nicolette is not like Diane, a woman who ran to meet death, he told himself. Nicolette hungers and thirsts for life.

As he thought more often of her, and as his body grew stronger and harder, he began to think perhaps he did not want to die.

And in his thoughts he became more absorbed with her. Nicolette is the only person alive who can make me happy, and I am probably the only man who can make her happy, and yet in our jealous anger we have parted from each other. At any moment either of us may be carried off by sickness. Since we landed here on Cyprus a thousand and more crusaders have died of disease. Why waste the little time we have? I must see her, and before the army leaves for Egypt.

In December Perrin had come to him and told him that a message had come from Nicolette.

Joy had welled up in Roland’s heart like a spring suddenly bursting forth from a rock. He was amazed at the power of his feelings.

Nicolette had not risked a written message. She had sent Agnes to tell Perrin that the Queen and her ladies would shortly be making a circuit of the island, visiting monasteries and holy places. In a few weeks they would be in Paphos, to see the pillar at which Saint Paul had been scourged. Paphos and Kolossi, where Roland was, were both near Kouklia, the legendary site of the birth of Venus.

So the meeting had been set: dawn on the feast of Saint Paul’s miraculous conversion, the twenty-fifth of January, by the Rock of Romios, the place where Venus — or, as he had heard the Cypriots call her, Aphrodite — had emerged from the sea.

As he rode, the thought of seeing Nicolette again raised a tingling in the pit of Roland’s stomach, sent his blood racing through his body. He felt excited and apprehensive — worried that instead of a joyful reunion they might have another savage quarrel, as when he had come to Beziers as a friar.

A huge black rock, shaped like an overturned ship, loomed out of the darkness just ahead. He scanned the rock and the beach about it, but he could see no one.

He walked his horse into the forest of cedars along the edge of the beach and tethered her to a low-hanging, gnarled limb. He stopped to breathe deeply of the cedar fragrance which seemed to pervade the whole island. There were more cedars on Cyprus than there were in Lebanon, Guido Bruchesi had told him.

Then he went back, to the beach. Just above the border between wet and dry, next to the giant rock, he spread his black cloak and sat down on it, staring out at the sea.

After a time he looked to the west and saw that the moon had disappeared. Eastward the sky had gone from black to purple. A pleasant sea breeze caressed his face. Looking south out to sea, he watched a line of bobbing yellow lights, fishing boats, move slowly past a second rock that rose thirty feet out in the water.

Will we love each other this time, simply and purely? Or will we waste more of our lives in anger? His heart struggled in his chest. What if she does not come at all?

He noticed a spot in the water out by the distant rock, and caught his breath. A head, moving out there. Curious, intrigued, he stood up to get a better look. Arms flashed through the waves. His lips parted in wonder. It was lighter now but not light enough to identify a distant swimmer. Still, the shape in the waves had to be Nicolette. Hurriedly he kicked away his boots, drew off his hose, and strode down into the foam. The swimmer was in the shallows now. Slender arms, long flowing hair — surely it was she.

Then she stood up. The rushing water roiled about her knees. Arms at her sides, she stood still, swaying slightly to the push and pull of the breakers. On his left, the red-hot edge of the sun broke over the eastern horizon. The light sparkled on the drops of water besprinkling her naked body, turning them to fiery jewels. She stood, ten feet away from him, looking deep into his eyes. He was stunned, awestruck. The first worshipers of the Goddess of Love must have felt like this when Venus arose, surely no more beautiful than the vision before him, from these same waves. He stared at her high, full breasts with their nipples the color of dark cherries, at the creamy white belly, at the sweet dimple of her navel, the sea-wet shield of hair that graced her loins, and he felt faint with desire and fell to his knees in the foaming water.

She walked toward him as he knelt at the water’s edge, then stood above him, her body like a Grecian statue. She took his head between her hands and pulled it to her. His cheek rested against the flat curve of her belly for a moment, then he turned his head and kissed her, tasting the salt of the sea.

“Mi dons,” he said, whispering the words into her flesh, “I worship you.”

“Let me worship you as well,” came her answer from above him.

He pressed the palms of his hands against the small of her back and felt her trembling.

He stood and took her by the hand, leading her alongside the rock to where he had laid out his cloak, and quickly stripped himself. He embraced her sitting up, facing her in the ancient way. As the sun rose higher, it warmed his almost motionless naked body, and he felt heat rising from her, dispelling the chill of the sea. Fire swept through him, burning away all that was matter, until he was pure mind, pure light. It was with his mind, rather than his bedazzled senses, that he felt Nicolette’s transports.

As for himself, he sought no release this day. This union with her was perfection as it was. When he felt she had achieved the fullest possible measure of bliss, he allowed his own tension gradually to subside. Suffering, sickness, and harsh discipline had given him a new power of restraint.

They drew apart and lay side by side on his cloak, spent, and he listened with delight to her breath whispering in his ear.

A distant church bell rang out the Angelus. “The villagers nearby must be up and about,” Nicolette said. She sat up, smiling. “If they saw us lying here nude they might take us for Venus and Mars come back to Earth. Or they might decide we are a pair of shameless fornicators and march us off to their priest. Perhaps it is time we dressed.”

Her smile vanished, and she was suddenly crying in his arms. “Oh, my love, I thought we would never again be together like this.” He held her till her sobs subsided. She raised her head, and he traced the path of her tears on her cheek with his fingertip.

She rose and walked to a niche in the great rock, where there was a small pile of clothing he had not noticed before. The beauty of her body, glowing like ivory in the morning sun, took his breath away. She put on the clothes, the costume of a Cypriot equerry, with an ankle-length tunic of lightweight blue silk, and she piled up her long hair under a yellow turban. Roland noticed, higher up on the rock, a withered bouquet of wild flowers. It looked as if it must have been placed there by devoted hands several days ago. They had not altogether stopped worshiping the old gods and goddesses on this island, he thought.

With reluctance he donned his own clothing. The cedar-scented air was so pleasantly warm he felt he could have stayed naked in it all day.

“How did you come here?” he asked Nicolette when they were sitting together. “Did you come alone? Did you fall from the sky?”

“Of course I came alone,” she said with a low laugh. “Would you have wanted an audience for what we just did? I tied my horse out of sight in the forest, and then I went in swimming. I wanted you to think me born of wave and foam.”

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