All Things Are Lights – Day 151 of 200

He said nothing, seeming caught up in his own thoughts.

The Queen’s women and my own have men they love at Mansura, Nicolette thought, and they do not know whether they are alive or dead. But they at least can weep, or scream, or faint. I must keep my fear for my beloved locked in my heart.

Roland must be alive. If he were dead, I would know it. I would feel it. Or I would have dreamt it.

By the time Amalric was bathed, he had downed a flagon of wine. He fell naked on the bed he had had shipped here from France. His body, never exposed to the sun, was pale as ever. Red insect bites dotted his skin, standing out against the white. His muscles were hard and lean like stretched ropes, and the bones of his big frame showed through everywhere. He eyed her, and for a dreadful moment she thought he was going to make her submit to him, but his eyes closed and his mouth dropped open. Breathing heavily, sprawled on his back, he lay motionless. Nicolette spread a coverlet over him.

Now she was alone.

She started to tremble, then jumped to her feet and ran out of the room as if the Turks were already pursuing her.

How can I find out whether Roland is alive or dead?

How did we suffer such a defeat?

And how did Amalric alone escape?

Her temples throbbed, and she pressed her hands to her aching head.

Night fell, and still she paced the tiled floors of this strange, sprawling house that had once belonged to an emir. When she walked in the garden a warm breeze from the sea rustled the long sleeves of the cool white linen gown she wore.

She had to do something. But all I can do, she finally decided, is lend my strength to Marguerite. She is the only one now who can save the King. And whatever helps the King will help Roland, if he is still alive.

No, we must not give up Damietta. I must stop Amalric from persuading her to do that.

But how?

Just thinking of Amalric’s power made her feel weak. Constable of France. What choice had Marguerite but to listen to him?

She shuddered with a realization. There was a way to turn Marguerite against Amalric. She would have to tell her. Everything. Amalric’s ambition, the hatred of heresy that possessed him, his belief that Louis was ruining France, his wish that the King might die.

She will never believe me. What if she turns against me, not against Amalric? She will denounce me, and he will kill me.

Oh, dear Goddess, oh, sweet Jesus, what am I going to do?

She buried her face in her hands, frantic.

Suddenly she saw Roland’s face before her, heard the words he had spoken to her long ago when he invited her to go up to the secret room at the bookseller’s with him. Risk it.

She squared her shoulders. All right. I will tell her.

Having decided, she went upstairs to the bedroom and lay down on the bed as far from Amalric as possible.

For the rest of the night she was awake more than she slept. When she heard the birds calling in the marshes around Damietta she knew that dawn was coming, and she got up again to dress herself in a dark brown tunic and a gray surcoat. Nothing gay or bright would do in this city in mourning.

She busied herself calming and comforting the servants. She and Agnes held hands and wiped away each other’s tears. She looked in on Amalric once before she left, during the hour of Prime. He looked as if he might sleep through the day. He had hardly moved all night long.

She hesitated at the doorway to the mansion. Until now she had never hesitated to walk through the streets of Damietta, even to visit the bazaars. From time to time, Marguerite and some of the other women chided her for her boldness. Perhaps having been a stranger in northern France for so long, Nicolette had learned not to fear strange places. And so she had ignored the warnings.

But then Damietta had been behind the lines of a conquering army. Now things were altogether different.

She heard a crier in the minaret of the one mosque the crusaders permitted, calling the Muslims to morning prayer. Did she hear a new note of triumph in his voice?

I will go out, she decided. I have my dagger, and it is not far to walk. I will not let my fears imprison me.

She felt drops of sweat on her brow and wiped them away with the back of her hand. The day’s terrible damp heat was already rising. It is only April. If I spend another summer here, I shall die anyway, Saracens or no.

She walked to the palace, not wanting to arrive before Marguerite might have had a full night’s sleep. Sullen-looking Genoese sailors gathered around the outer gate glared at her. She kept her eyes decorously down, pretending not to see them, but her stomach was churning. Those ships anchored offshore, the ships that had brought them all here, were hired from Genoa and manned by Genoese crews. They cared nothing for France or the crusade. Money alone interested them. What if, with this defeat, they decided to leave?

We would have to go — or be left at the mercy of the Muslims.

When Nicolette entered the bedchamber, Marguerite was crying. Sire Geoffrey de Burgh, who slept on a pallet at the foot of the Queen’s bed, saluted Nicolette and left them alone.

“Oh, Nicolette, I do not know what to do,” Marguerite sobbed. “Louis never talked to me about any of the plans he made for the war. Now, if I do not do the right thing, he and all those other men may die.”

“Has there been any message from the Saracens?” Nicolette sat on the edge of the bed and took Marguerite’s hand.

“No.” Marguerite shook her head woefully. “The first sign we see of them may be their army surrounding the city.”

“Marguerite, back in the days of Saladin, a woman named Isabella of Toron held a castle with only eighteen knights against a whole Saracen army. You have at least fifty here.”

Marguerite wiped her face with her kerchief. “Oh, I know, I would not be the first woman to command a city under siege. Eleanor of Aquitaine did it, too. But I am no Eleanor. Tell me, how long did this Isabella and her knights hold out?”

“Five days.”

Marguerite laughed, as Nicolette had hoped she would.

Nicolette looked out through the iron arabesques that barred the window. This room was probably part of the Egyptian governor’s harem, she thought. What would it be like to be the slave of a Muslim, subject to his lusts? She would cut her own throat first.

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