All Things Are Lights – Day 117 of 200

Roland joined in the general laughter.

Louis cut it short by staring about him sternly. He had not meant it as a joke.

Louis spoke on in the silence that followed his angry look. “It is also true that we cannot expect another easy victory the next time we meet the Egyptians — though I would prefer to call the capture of Damietta a miracle and thank God that so few lives were lost, rather than say it was an accident.”

Roland felt a chill. That was aimed at him.

Louis wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his surcoat. “But we will be much stronger by the time the flood waters go down. My brother Alphonse is coming with reinforcements. We will await him, holding Damietta, and work at building river galleys and stone-casters until we can march.” He paused and looked about him earnestly.

Roland was in despair. The war was going to continue.

Louis spoke again. “I say this with a heavy heart, because it means many good men must die. But they die for the faith, and our Seigneur will gather them to His bosom. We do not want an easy peace. Count Amalric, you said just now that the infidel must be fought, not bargained with. I would say, rather, that the infidel must be fought first, then bargained with. We must strike such a blow that they will never dare threaten Jerusalem again. Otherwise, no treaty we make with them will be secure.”

Louis stood up and turned to Roland, who felt as if he were in mourning. Louis’s head was high and his face was flushed, Roland saw. His Jerusalem look. God help us all.

“Tell the envoys,” Louis said, “we will trade a city for Jerusalem, but not Damietta. Tell them, when we take Cairo we will trade it for Jerusalem. “

Roland closed his eyes. He felt overwhelmed by a sense of doom.

But the barons shouted their approval. All the men in the hall were on their feet now. And apart from the grand master of the Templars, who looked downcast, even those who had favored accepting the Sultan’s proposal glowed with enthusiasm. They believe in him, Roland thought.

I love him. I would die for him. But I am sure he is wrong, and the price will be terrible.

Amalric brought his fist down on the map of Egypt and roared, “On to Cairo!” A tile fell from the table and smashed on the floor.

Robert d’Artois echoed, “On to Cairo!”

The barons took it up, chanting, stamping their feet and shaking their fists, while Louis stood in their midst, silent his hands clasped and his head bowed in prayer.

When Roland returned to the Mamelukes in the courtyard, they were standing, their faces grave. They might not understand French, but there was no mistaking the shouts coming from within. Their groom held the reins of their horses, his one blue eye bright with amusement. Amusement? Roland wondered. Why does this man take pleasure in his embassy’s failure?

Roland wanted to soften the wording of the King’s reply, but to do so would be to falsify it. In Arabic he said, “My lord the King says he will trade a city for Jerusalem. However, the city will not be Damietta, but Cairo.”

The tall, one-eyed groom laughed aloud. He let go the horses of the two envoys and leaped into the saddle of his own Arabian charger. He sat easily, not bothering to hold the reins. The Mamelukes mounted and looked at him expectantly.

“Our Sultan’s letter said that Allah loves peace above all,” said the one-eyed Tartar in a deep voice, his Arabic strangely accented. “It is not so. Islam is the faith of warriors.”

He looked past Roland. He raised his hand in salute to someone there. Roland turned and saw King Louis on the steps of the palace. Here, sire, here is your enemy. Clever, resolute, fearless.

The Tartar said, “Say to the King of the Franks I shall meet him again, at the place of victory.” With those words he wheeled his mount, using the pressure of his legs to guide it.

Awed, Roland felt more certain than ever that the war would be a calamity. Whoever this Tartar was, Roland had never encountered a more intimidating man.

The three envoys rode through the gateway of the palace. Roland followed them on foot. They galloped across the plaza, past the blue-domed mosque, which had been consecrated to the Virgin; it was now a Christian cathedral. The Tartar let out a war cry that made Roland shiver — a high, weird scream like the call of a great bird of prey. Long after the hoofbeats of the Mamelukes had died away, the cry seemed to hang in the air.

Roland stood staring at the dust cloud the three riders left behind. He whispered to himself the Arabic word for victory.


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