All Things Are Lights – Day 152 of 200

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.

“Nicolette, I will not leave Egypt without Louis. I want to hold this city until I can deliver him. But I know so little about warfare. The count — the Constable — your husband seems certain we should abandon Damietta. And we cannot depend on the Genoese. Admiral Lercari has asked me again and again to release their ships.”

Nicolette’s heart beat hard in her chest. Now is the time.

She reached for Marguerite’s hands, holding them in both of hers. The Queen’s hands were small and cold.

“Marguerite, about Amalric’s advice — I have to tell you something terrible. You will find it hard to believe. Amalric does not have your good and the King’s good at heart.”

She held Marguerite’s gaze with her own, watching fear, bewilderment, and suspicion flicker through the Queen’s eyes. If only I could read her mind. If only she could read mine, and know that what I am telling her is the truth.

After a silence Marguerite said, “In God’s name, what are you saying?”

“My husband is very ambitious. And you know how he hates heretics.”

“Nicolette, you are not making any sense. Louis has rewarded your husband’s ambition. He has made him Constable. He listens to him. Amalric is Louis’s cousin. Louis’s mother loves him. And what do heretics have to do with this? Amalric spoke of heretics, too, yesterday. We are fighting Muslims, not heretics.”

Sweet Goddess, it is going all wrong, thought Nicolette. She wished she could call her words back.

The royal bedchamber was growing uncomfortably warm as noon approached. Only the seaward breeze coming in through the grilled window kept the room from being stifling. Nicolette knew she ought to call in a page to fan Marguerite, but they had to finish this talk alone.

What shall I say next? O Goddess, give me eloquence.

“Amalric blames Louis. You remember, the Pope declared the Emperor a heretic, and yet Louis would not fight the Emperor. Well, Amalric has turned against the King. He has said so to me.”

“But those disagreements are all in the past.”

“Not for Amalric. He never forgets that heretics — as he believes — killed his father and his brother. He never wanted to go on this crusade. Now he just wants to get back to France. To destroy everything your husband has worked for — the prosperity of the common people, the equal justice, the general peace.”

Marguerite looked bewildered, hurt. “But why? Anyone can see the good Louis has done.”

“Amalric cares about two things only, the nobility and the Church. He wants the country run entirely for their benefit. And most of all, for his own.”

Marguerite shook her head as if to clear it. She pulled her hands away from Nicolette’s and wiped the sweat from her brow. Nicolette wet a linen cloth and patted the Queen’s forehead and wrists with it.

“But we are not back in France arguing about how the country should be run,” Marguerite said. “Louis is in the most terrible danger, and we must all work together to rescue him. Why are you tormenting me with these old disputes?”

I am just making life more difficult for her, Nicolette thought. Despair drove her to cut to the very heart of the matter.

She put down the damp cloth and leaned across the bed, bringing her face close to Marguerite’s.

“Marguerite, please, listen to me. Amalric wants your husband to die!”

Marguerite shrank back. Her mouth fell open, her brown eyes grew huge, and she put her hands over her round belly.

“No!”

Appalled at the enormity of what she had just said, Nicolette managed to choke out, “I swear it is true. He has felt that way for years.”

“For years? Then why have you never said anything before?” Nicolette saw anger growing in Marguerite’s eyes.

“Would you have believed me? Would you trust a woman who accuses her own husband of treason? A woman who, as you well know, loves her husband’s enemy?”

“But you let this go on? You let my husband befriend a man who is plotting his death?” The horror and rage were mounting ever higher in Marguerite’s face.

My God, thought Nicolette, am I upsetting her more than Amalric did yesterday?

“I did not say he was plotting the King’s death,” she said, forcing herself to speak calmly. “I have no proof of that. I said he wants the King to die. In the long run he hopes either to make himself King or to control whoever wears the crown.”

“If this is true, he must be mad. If it is not true, you are. Will you accuse your husband to his face?”

Nicolette felt as if the floor had disappeared beneath her feet. She pictured herself facing Amalric before the Queen, perhaps before a court of clergy and knights. Her word, the word of a wife, against one of the greatest barons in the realm.

She stood up and went to the window. Through the iron scrollwork she looked down into the palace courtyard. The same little group of Genoese seamen were squatting on the tiles. Like Amalric, they want to force us to leave, she thought.

She turned to face Marguerite. After looking at the bright sunlight outside, the bedroom seemed shadowed to her, and she could barely see the Queen on the bed.

“Yes,” she said, because she could not say anything else. “Yes, I will say it to his face. If that is what you want.”

Marguerite shook her head. “I do not know what I want. I need help as I have never needed help in my life before, and you are telling me that the strongest man at my side is a traitor.”

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