All Things Are Lights – Day 157 of 200

The one-eyed man looked surprised, then laughed a little and shrugged.

He reached out with his right hand and grasped her face. His hand was huge, and the palm and fingers were rough.

She wanted to pull away, but she felt paralyzed, transfixed by the gaze of the single blue eye. She thought of tales she had heard of one-eyed giants who lived somewhere on the shores of the great sea.

His fingers slid over her cheek with surprising delicacy, then he smiled at her and turned away.

She heard Maurice softly release his breath.

The tall Bedouin spoke to Maurice, and Maurice in turn addressed Nicolette. “I have some business with him, Madame. Wait here, and when we are done, I will take you safely back to Damietta.”

He and the chieftain walked around to the side of the island facing Damietta. They stood looking at the city and talking in low voices.

That one-eyed man is a scout for the Saracen army, thought Nicolette, and Maurice is telling him about our defenses. He has lived thirty years among the Muslims and must have become one of them.

Anger choked her. He might have helped destroy our army at Mansura. Helped kill Roland. She shook with rage.

The sun hung low over the flat marshland. Nicolette thought of trying to run for the boat, but she knew they could catch her. When they were done talking, she saw Maurice bow to the Arab, touching his right hand to his forehead, lips, and breast. Almost like the sign of the cross, Nicolette thought. The Bedouin bowed to Maurice with a flourish of his hand, turned, and plunged into the reeds. A moment later Nicolette heard a horse’s hollow footfalls on the bridge over the canal from this island to the next.

Maurice returned to her. She braced herself, ready to fight or run if he attacked her. She watched his hands closely, alert for a move toward her or to the dagger in his jeweled scabbard. He is old, she thought. He cannot be as strong as I am. But he looks strong.

“It is good that you came by boat, Madame,” he said. “I walked out, and it would take us hours to walk back. By that time they will have closed the gates. May I row you back, Madame?”

She tried to think what to say to him as they walked toward her boat. If I question him he may kill me. But he must expect me to demand an explanation. If I say nothing at all, he will be convinced I plan to denounce him when we get back. And then he will surely kill me.

“That man is the chief of a tribe,” Maurice said, “a tribe that owns many sheep. I have just made an agreement with him that will put meat on your table even if there is a siege. Is that not splendid?” He eyed her searchingly.

If I call him a liar, he can still kill me, she thought.

“I suppose, then, my husband knows about this — agreement?”

“I have done this sort of thing for him in the past, Madame. That is why he came back to you looking as fit as he did. You can ask him about the fresh-killed lamb and beef I bought him at Mansura. Old soldiers know how to forage. But, as it happens, he does not know about this meeting today, and I think it best to keep it that way for now. It would not look right for the commander of Damietta to be getting provisions from the Bedouins. If I get caught at it, he can swear on the Sacred Host he did not know anything about it. Do you not think that is best?”

He swept a clump of reeds aside, and there was her little flat-bottomed boat. In the distance the rippling water of the canals reflected the setting sun like gold filigree. Maurice steadied the skiff for her as she got in and climbed to the seat in the stern. Without hesitation he stepped knee-deep into the muddy water and pushed off, then slid nimbly in, dripping, to seat himself amidships at the oars.

“My life is in your hands, Madame,” Maurice said gravely as they drifted down the canal toward the Nile. “The Christians in Damietta are mad with fear. If you say I was spying, they will hang me without asking for my side of it.”

And that is exactly what I will do, she thought. If he is foolish enough to let me live.

Maurice rowed in silence, head bowed. When he looked up at her again, it was slyly and with a hint of disrespect.

“Perhaps Madame has secrets of her own to keep. Such a beautiful spot for lovers to meet, that island, is it not? You ought to tell me, if you do not want the count to know about your visit, so that I will be careful not to speak of it.”

She cast her eyes down, avoiding his shrewd gaze.

“We understand each other, Maurice. We each have things we would rather not have the count know about. Perhaps you can do me a service as well. Besides getting meat from the Bedouins, are you able to get information?”

“Anything Madame wishes.”

Her stomach muscles tightened. I am taking a chance. He could use it against me.

“Could you find out for me what knights are still alive as prisoners at Mansura?”

“Is Madame interested in learning about any particular knight?”

“If you have any news of the captives, bring it to me, and I will decide what further questions I have for you.”

They were in the main channel of the Nile now, the brown walls of Damietta looming on the riverbank. They spoke no more, each absorbed in thought.

If Maurice is really helping the Saracens, Damietta might fall if I fail to denounce him. I will have murdered all of us.

Dear God, now I shall have to watch Amalric and Maurice both.

She felt weak, crushed by fear. Why must this all fall on me?

But there was no one else. She would have to struggle on alone.

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