All Things Are Lights – Day 167 of 200

“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.”

This was Amalric’s doing, Nicolette thought. How I long for the day when I can expose him for what he is.

She stepped back and bowed her head.

“Give me a few moments to prepare the Queen to receive you, Messires.”

Marguerite had slept through the argument at the door. Nicolette gazed down pityingly at her. She lay on her back with her head turned to one side, looking as helpless as a child. Softly Nicolette called her till she awoke. Then she told her about the men outside.

“Nicolette, I cannot face them now. What can I say to them?” Nicolette seized her friend’s hands and held them tightly, wishing she could pour strength into her. “Listen to their reasons, then ask for time. Every day we can delay them is a victory for us.”

Marguerite pressed her lips together and painfully pushed herself up in the bed. “Arrange the pillows so I can sit up straight. Bring me my blue and gold brocade robe and bind up my hair. Give the baby to one of the maids and have her take him to another part of the palace.”

A short time later Nicolette opened the door and the seamen trooped into the room, looking abashed at the sight of the wan Queen. They bent the knee to Marguerite, and Nicolette held her breath as Lercari began to speak.

“To come to the point quickly, Madame, I have learned from one I trust that there are no more provisions in reserve in Damietta. Counting the oarsmen, I have nearly ten thousand men out there on the water. Ten thousand men to feed daily — even the galley slaves have to be fed once a day, or they will not have the strength to pull our oars. I am responsible for all those lives, Madame, and I do not intend to let them be lost. So I have come to ask you to prepare to leave.”

No food in Damietta? Nicolette’s stomach clenched violently. If Lercari is right, we cannot hold out.

Amalric, she thought. It is he who told Lercari that there is no food. But our provisions? All these months we have kept the warehouses full. Did Amalric destroy them?

“This cannot be,” Marguerite spoke up. “I know of no shortage of provisions. There are ships on the way from Acre and Cyprus. We have plenty of gold with us to buy more food, Admiral, I can assure you of that.”

Lercari shrugged. “If Madame goes to the marketplaces of the city, she will see that there is nothing to buy. You do not even know whether your appeals to Acre and Cyprus have arrived, much less whether any help is on the way. And the need is upon us now.”

The finality in his voice was to Nicolette as a dungeon door closing. She and Marguerite would never see Roland or King Louis again.

“But, Admiral,” Marguerite pleaded. “We cannot give up now. We have heard from the Sultan. He demands a ransom of eight hundred thousand bezants, and the surrender of Damietta. The treasury of France can supply the money, and more if need be. We have sent for it already. Only a little while longer and those brave men that you brought here will be free. They will embrace you as brothers when you carry them home. How can you turn your back on them now, when we are so close to rescuing them?”

“Forgive me, Madame, but we are not that close to rescuing them. The Saracens love nothing better than haggling. You might have to go on talking to them all summer and still get nowhere.”

“But that is why we must stay here,” said Marguerite, holding out her small hands in appeal. “Think how much longer the bargaining will take if we have to conduct it from across the sea.”

Lercari shook his head in brusque dismissal. “Madame, we cannot wait. My men are sickening just from being confined on board. Now they will start to starve. You are asking more than you have a right to, Madame.”

“More than I have a right to?” There was anger in Marguerite’s voice, and her dark eyes flashed. “In Jesus’ name, what kind of Christians are you? This is no ordinary war, and no ordinary king. If you turn away from us in our need, I promise you, Admiral Lercari, God will remember it. Your city will feel His wrath. And the world will remember, too. Do you want the name of Genoa to stand for cowardice and treachery?”

At the mention of God’s wrath one of Lercari’s captains crossed himself, but Lercari glowered. “Madame, if a man spoke thus to me, he should answer for it.”

“You are very good with threats to a woman who has just borne a child, Admiral,” said Marguerite.

Lercari’s face turned red under his olive skin.

“We are not cowards or traitors, Madame,” said Lercari sullenly. “We are good Christians and do not want to desert your husband and his men. But against famine the strongest of us is helpless. What would you have us do?”

She has him now, Nicolette rejoiced. But can she hold the advantage?

Now Marguerite’s tone changed, as if she were making a concession. “Give me a little more time, Admiral. Let me look for provisions. Perhaps some people are hoarding. Perhaps there are supplies in the city we do not know about. I will pay whatever I have to. I promise you, your men will not go hungry. Give me a day at least.”

Lercari bowed. “A day, Madame. Yes, certainly, you can have that. But if your search for food fails, I expect you to be more agreeable to our leaving.”

It is hopeless, thought Nicolette. If Amalric has told him there is no food, he surely must have seen to it that none will be found.

Then she remembered Maurice. Could he really have made an arrangement with the Bedouins to get food for their household? Could he arrange for much more food, backed by the Queen’s treasury? And if he could — would he?

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