All Things Are Lights – Day 166 of 200

He had faced the King with all the doubts he had felt ever since he had entered Louis’s service. Louis had heard and answered.

“Thank you for letting me speak so freely to you, sire,” he said.

“Thank you for all your good service to me, Roland,” said Louis. “In the past and in time to come.”

In the darkness of the hut, Roland heard a movement and felt a hand, thin and cold, but firm, take his.

As night fell over the prison camp, the two men sat together in the silence of friends.

XXXI

Through the window of the Queen’s bedchamber Nicolette heard men’s voices in the courtyard below. She sat upright in the big chair, her fingers gripping its arms, her body rigid with dread.

Only two weeks ago, on just such a quiet Sunday afternoon as this, she had heard the shouts in the street that accompanied Amalric’s return. She remembered how he had burst into this very room, his eyes gleaming with secret triumph. She remembered hearing the news that seared her heart. And Roland? Alive or dead?

Today, two weeks later, she still did not know.

Now she heard boots tramping through the hall below, and then the tread of heavy feet on the stairs.

Why must they come now, whoever they are? she thought. They will wake the baby.

Exhausted as she was after the agonizing hours of Marguerite’s labor that had begun before dawn, she pushed herself out of the chair. She must make these men be quiet.

She went to the newborn infant beside Marguerite’s bed. Geoffrey de Burgh had hammered his cradle together out of scrap wood. She looked down at the pink face. The tiny Tristan had not stirred.

But the rough voices and the footsteps were coming nearer. The Queen, too, Nicolette saw, was still sleeping, a small figure in the great royal bed.

Oh, poor Marguerite! Nicolette thought. For the past two weeks she had been waking up screaming, dreaming that Saracens swarmed into her room to rape her, and kill her and the baby cradled in her belly. After one unspeakably awful nightmare she had asked Nicolette to stay at the palace and sleep in the royal bed with her.

If she heard this commotion, Marguerite would surely think the Saracens were upon them. She must not be upset anymore, not after her sufferings of the past hours.

Nicolette ran to the door and pulled it open. De Burgh stood there with his back to her, facing a group of men. She recognized them, from their flamboyant silk caps and capes, as Genoese shipmasters. At their head was their commander, Hugo Lercari, who called himself admiral, a title the Genoese had borrowed from the Arabs. With scowling eyebrows and a short, thick beard, he looked more like a highwayman than a nobleman.

“These men insist on seeing the Queen,” de Burgh said angrily. “I would like to have turned them away, Madame, but I thought it might be too important for me to take that on myself.”

Fright took a cold grip on Nicolette’s heart as she realized what the shipmasters were doing here. Just yesterday Nicolette had been walking with Amalric on the city battlements. He had urged her to break down the Queen’s resolve to hold Damietta, and when she answered that she could not sway Marguerite, he had declared he had a way of his own to make the Queen see reason and leave. She knew that he had planned to visit the fleet this morning. This could mean the end, the deaths of King Louis and all those good men.

I must do something, she thought, but what? Desperately she tried to think of words that would turn the Genoese away.

She took a deep breath. “Admiral Lercari, surely this can wait a bit. The Queen has just given birth. She is asleep. In the name of chivalry, I beg you to let her rest, at least until tomorrow.”

Lercari’s face hardened.

Nicolette flinched inwardly. She knew that he had only to give the order and his fleet would sail away, leaving all the crusaders still alive to end as bleached bones in the desert.

“I know the Queen has been brought to childbed, Madame,” he said, speaking French in an accented growl. “But we cannot delay another day. Lives are at stake. We are delighted to learn, as we hear, that she has given birth to a son and that both are well.” He turned and nodded to the men with him, and they grumbled assent. “That is one reason why we come to her now. There is no longer any danger that she might go into labor at sea. It is safe to move now.”

Time, Nicolette thought, I must fight for time.

“Admiral, many women take sick and die after they give birth. Would you have the Queen’s life on your hands? You would not want to answer to King Louis for that, would you?”

Lercari’s impatient expression told her he never expected to see the King a free man.

Lercari smiled unpleasantly. “First we cannot leave because she is about to have a baby, now because she has had the baby. Next we will hear she is pregnant again.” The shipmasters laughed coarsely.

“How dare you!” De Burgh’s hand was on his sword hilt.

In a panic, Nicolette seized the old knight’s arm.

“No, Sire Geoffrey.” She looked into the aged eyes pleadingly. “Christian men cannot afford to fight one another with Saracens outside our walls.”

De Burgh nodded, to her immense relief, and let go of his sword.

“Madame,” said Lercari, “I say only this to you. If the Queen is not aware of her danger, we are. The Saracens are now camped only half a league away. You can see their tents from the city walls. Their galleys sail down the river within bowshot of Damietta whenever they please. They know you have only a few hundred men here, and only a handful capable of really fighting. An Egyptian fleet from Alexandria might attack our ships at any time. We are here to make our intentions known to the Queen. If we cannot have an audience, we will sail away this very day without speaking to her.” He frowned at her, bringing his heavy brows together. “I was given to understand you would assist me, Madame, not put obstacles in my path.”

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