All Things Are Lights – Day 186 of 200

Yes, but soon now it will be over, Roland thought. And I can go home. We can all go home. If I overcome Amalric.

His heart filled with joy. Whatever happened, even if he were to die, he could hope for at least one last sight of Nicolette.

XXXV

“For all I know, Madame, the crusaders may be dead by now,” said Maurice flatly. “I hate to hurt you so, but you asked, and that is my honest answer.” Apologetically he set down the tray of melon slices, eggs, bread, and wine he had brought for her breakfast.

“In other words, you know nothing.” Nicolette felt angry enough to slap him. True, he had been kind to her in the last two days; he seemed genuinely to regret acting as her jailer. But because of him she could not warn the Queen against Amalric.

Where is Agnes? she wondered. If only I could see her, I could slip a message to her and she could get out to Marguerite with it. How is she being kept away from me?

She thought of trying to overpower Maurice and escape. He was an old man, after all. But he looked strong. No, instead of fighting him, she would talk to him. Somehow perhaps she could move him.

“I do not understand you, Master Maurice. You helped me deceive my husband about the provisions. Why will you not help me now? Whom do you really serve?”

He shifted his feet and then pointed to the other chair in Nicolette’s bedroom. “May I?” He sat down at her nod, facing her across the black marble table.

She leaned forward eagerly. This was the first time he had sat down to talk with her. Now if only she could find a way to reach him.

“There is nothing you can do to hurt me now, Madame,” he said. “And I have a need to confess my sins — if sins they be. Confession is one thing I missed all these years in Egypt. You think you hate me now for doing your husband’s bidding. You may hate me more when I tell you what I really am.” He smiled sadly.

“Do you care what I feel about you?” She prayed that he did. In that lay her only chance.

He nodded thoughtfully. “I told you once, Madame, you remind me of the best part of the life I left behind, when the Saracens took me prisoner. But much of that life, as I remember it, was very bad.”

Ah, she thought, just as I’ve suspected.

“You are a Muslim,” she ventured.

He bowed his head in acknowledgment. “You understand, Madame, that if you are a commoner, they do not let you live unless you accept Islam. And even then only as a slave. Most of my mates went to their deaths, praying. But when I was facing the executioner’s sword, a thought came to me. You would probably say the Devil put it in my mind. But what had the Church ever done for me, really? I had been hungry all my life. A few years before, my aunt and uncle and cousins were all burned as heretics. There was much so-called heresy among the weavers, you know. Then those cursed friars talked us into marching off to Outremer. Said it was God’s will we should fight these people on the other side of the world who had never done a thing to me. I went, I guess, partly because I believed them, partly because I now hated my home. All I remember now about the crusade itself was being seasick and losing my teeth, being eaten alive by fleas and being so frightened all the time I could never keep my food down. And then, for the Church, I was supposed to let them cut off my head. All of a sudden I found myself saying, to Hell with the Church — begging your pardon, Madame. I would try being a Muslim. There was nothing more I could lose. I suppose you think I was a damned coward.”

She quaked within. All this time we had a Saracen spy in our house. He could have cut our throats in our sleep.

But he did not. And the only important thing now is to get to Marguerite.

Who is Maurice’s real master?

“It does not sound at all like the act of a coward,” she said. “In your place I might have done the same thing. The Church has not been kind to me, either, or to people I love.”

Maurice nodded. “Ah, yes, you are a woman of Languedoc, are you not? Well, the fact is I learned to love Islam. I had many masters, some of them cruel and some kind, but all of them took seriously the duty of instructing me. I got an Islamic name, Mukaddam ben Faris. Islam made sense. Paradise, you see, is a place of comfort and good food and beautiful women. Heaven as the Christian priests described it always sounded dull. I liked the Muslim rituals, the praying five times a day, the duty of giving to the poor, the pilgrimage, even the fasting. I even got used to not drinking wine, though not all my masters were strict about that. One of my owners was a carpet merchant. I helped guard his caravans. He took me to Mecca with him, and I kissed the sacred Black Stone in the Kaaba. I have been to Jerusalem, too, which is more than your King or anybody in his army can say. It is just as holy a place to them — to us Muslims I mean — as it is to Christians. The friars never told us that. I worshiped there in the Dome of the Rock, where our blessed Prophet ascended into Heaven. I have lived a good life here, Madame, better than I could have at home. I learned to read and write — in Arabic, think of it! I owe my good health to the Arab doctors, who know more about illness than any Christians. Muslims eat better, too; our clothing is more comfortable; we are cleaner than Christians. Do you know that we bathe every day? Can you imagine how Christians smell to us? Muslim women smell sweeter than Christian women do, excepting yourself, of course, Madame. I have married three women here in Egypt. You are allowed to do that, as the Prophet did not like to see women left unprotected. All in all, I have been very happy.”

She felt moved. Was she the first Christian he had ever poured his heart out so to?

“How could you do all that as a slave?” she asked.

“Even the slaves are better off in Islam, Madame. A slave can be rich and powerful. The Mamelukes are slaves. Even the great Baibars is accounted a slave. In fact, because I had been a soldier, it was eventually the Mamelukes who took me in. Life became even better for me then. The Arabs and the Turks, people born Muslims, they do not trust converts, but the Mamelukes are all converts, so it did not matter to them that I had once been a Christian. Eventually, I came to serve Baibars himself. He wanted to know everything I could tell him about the Christian part of the world.”

If only everyone she loved were not in such deadly peril, Nicolette would have been fascinated by Maurice’s tale. But it was his people who were about to slaughter King Louis and the others.

“You serve Baibars, the Saracen general everyone fears so much? The one they call the Panther? You know him?”

Maurice chuckled. “You have met him, too, Madame.”

“What do you mean?”

Then she remembered the Bedouin chieftain. Yes, she had heard once that the Panther had only one eye. “The Bedouin! He was spying on the city.”

Maurice nodded. “Scouting it. It is his way. He must see everything for himself. He loves to go about in disguise, like the great Caliph Haroun al Rashid of long ago. You enchanted him, Madame.”

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