All Things Are Lights – Day 187 of 200

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.”

Nicolette, shaken at how close she had come to being kidnapped, took a sip of wine. It was heavy Cypriot wine, and it burned her tongue.

“So Baibars set you to spy on us?”

Maurice’s eyes were two pale blue fish caught in nets of wrinkles. “It was my idea, Madame. I volunteered.”

“Whatever for? To destroy your own people?”

“Madame, the more I came to love Islam, the more guilt I felt that I had converted only out of fear. I doubted my own sincerity. I needed to prove to myself I had truly become a Muslim. Your crusaders landing here seemed the perfect opportunity. If I could live among French Christians once more and risk my life for the triumph of Islam, that would prove my conversion was a true one.”

I should hate him, Nicolette thought. But I cannot.

“It cannot have been easy after you joined us for you to remain true to your new faith.”

“When I first saw Count Amalric — such a big, handsome nobleman, the first free Christian I had seen in years — I wept. I surprised myself and was afraid. Could I do such grievous harm as I intended to this man and the army that had come with him? But as I got to know him, I realized he was the perfect unwitting ally in what I had set out to do — to bring about the defeat of the crusaders. The better I came to know him, the more I loathed him. It got so I could not look him in the eye for fear he would see my true feelings.” His face darkened. “To think, he tried to turn me against King Louis by calling him a lover of heresy. Never knowing how many of my family had gone to the stake.”

Staring into his watery blue eyes, Nicolette felt the need to escape growing in her until it almost burst its way out of her body. She rigidly averted her eyes from the key dangling from his belt, the key that could unlock the harem gate.

He may be right. Louis, and whatever remained of his army of crusaders, may all have been killed by the Sultan already. But I must keep trying to save them.

“You do not have to serve Amalric any longer,” she said. “You have accomplished all you set out to. The crusade is over. What have you to gain if the Sultan massacres all the captives?”

Maurice shook his head, smiling grimly. “The Sultan will not, Madame. The Mameluke emirs killed the Sultan at sundown two days ago.”

She gasped and dropped the bit of bread she had been holding. “Then who rules? What is going to happen to the prisoners now?”

“It is the Panther who will decide. I have had no message from him since the Sultan’s overthrow. My standing order is to obey the Count in all things, unless hear otherwise from Emir Baibars. That is why I must keep you here.”

She clenched her jaw angrily. If only she could get help. In God’s name, where is Agnes?

“But you do not have to treat me like a criminal, Maurice. You have kept me locked in here for three days. I need my maid. At least let Agnes come to me.”

Maurice turned his face away. “You cannot see her. Those are my orders.”

“But she must suspect something has happened to me. Has she not she asked questions about me?”

He stared down at the black table. “The count has given it out that you are ill and that the sickness is easily caught. He found duties for Agnes at the Queen’s residence.”

But she would insist on seeing me, Nicolette thought. She probably did, but Amalric bullied her out of it. So I must get out of here without help.

And soon. Baibars. Again she remembered that single penetrating eye, that iron-hard hand on her cheek.

“Does Baibars intend to kill the King and his men?”

“He has not told me. But he is a man of his word, not like Turan Shah. He respects your King. As I do. I believe he would not want to kill the captives unless he had to. But if he decides he must, he will act without hesitation and without mercy. That is the way he is.”

She heard a call from the street. A wagon that collected the bodies of those who had died during the night was going by. Desperately, she tried to think.

If only she could tell the Queen all she knew now about Amalric. Marguerite would remove him from his post and have him arrested.

She recalled the arrival of the Templars four days ago, fifty grim-faced knights, all looking alike in their plain steel helmets with their long beards, white surcoats, and red crosses. They rode small Arabian horses, flanking a dozen ox-drawn wagons groaning under chests of silver. At the sight of them tears had come to her eyes, and for the first time since Mansura, she had felt a little safer. She had heard the cheering Christians tell each other as they rode by that one Templar was the equal of ten ordinary knights.

So now, she thought, we have enough loyal men to overcome Amalric’s hirelings. We could warn the Saracens that we will not yield until the King and his men are delivered to us alive.

She fixed her gaze on him. “Master Maurice, if Amalric learns that the Sultan is dead and that Emir Baibars plans to free the King and his men, he will find some way to prevent it. Killing those captive men would be a foul deed that would dishonor not only your master but Islam itself. We must stop Amalric now.”

“I wish I could,” said Maurice, looking pained.

Nicolette reached across the table and seized his rough hand in both of hers. His eyes widened in surprise, and he started to pull away. Then he let her hold his hand. His weathered face reddened.

“Amalric could attack Emir Baibars’s emissaries. He could load the ransom money on a Genoese galley and take it away. Master Maurice, if you were strong enough once on your own to change gods, you must be strong enough to act now on your own, without orders.”

She released his hand, and prayed with all her being that her appeal would move him.

He sat silent for a long time, frowning at the table. Finally, he looked up. “What can I do?”

Tears of relief sprang to her eyes.

“Take me to the palace,” she said quickly, terrified that in the next instant he might change his mind. “Take me to the Queen. I will tell her everything.”

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