All Things Are Lights – Day 199 of 200

Roland was thunderstruck, that the reach of Louis’s vision was so vast. He had never realized that anyone could have such a dream. But then he remembered his vow at Mont Segur and thought, I have wanted to change the world, too.

“Sire, to have seen such a vision is more than is granted most men. To have struggled for it is everything, whether or not you succeed. And you may still be destined to create that new world, not through recapturing Jerusalem, but by working as best you can to build a new Jerusalem in your own kingdom.”

And I can help you, because that is a dream I can share with you with all my heart.

Louis leaned on the railing to steady himself against the rolling of the ship’s deck. “You know, Baibars offered me a safe conduct to Jerusalem, that I might at least see the holy city before I go home.”

“Will you go, sire?”

“No,” said Louis sadly. “I am not worthy to set my eyes upon the Jerusalem I could not rescue. As Baibars’s poet said, all I can ask is that God be merciful to me for all whom I have led to their deaths.” He put his hand on Roland’s shoulder. “I want you to write out a translation of that poem for me. I plan to read it every day for the rest of my life as a penance, to remind me to be humble.”

Here, despite his errors, is one of the best men alive, Roland thought. “Yes, sire.”

“And I want you to write another poem for me. An answer, as it were, to Baibars’s poem. Tell me why this crusade failed. Tell me what I did wrong. Tell me why God let it happen.”

Roland was aghast.

“Sire, you ask more than a poor poet like myself can possibly do. I cannot explain God’s ways.”

Louis put his hands on Roland’s shoulders. “If that Egyptian poet could break my heart, perhaps you can mend it.”

“I shall try, sire.”

The breeze ruffled Louis’s thinning hair. This is the first time, out here on the water, thought Roland, that we have felt refreshed in almost a year.

Something on deck caught Louis’s eye. “Sweet Jesus!”

“What is it, sire?”

“At a time like this!” he exclaimed.

He rushed to the steps leading down to the main deck and clattered down.

Roland saw the King’s brother Charles at a table by the mainmast. Facing him was Sire Jean de Joinville and between them a backgammon board. Gold bezants were piled up on the table.

Louis fell upon his brother. “How could you?” he shouted. “You know gambling is a sin. And on this day of all days, when you should be thinking about Robert, and all our dead. Go to your cabin and get down on your knees and do penance!”

Charles sat staring at Louis, his mouth hanging open.

Louis lifted the table, dumping the coins in de Joinville’s lap, then carried the table and game board to the rail and threw them over. A moment later Roland saw the brightly painted board bobbing astern.

De Joinville caught the coins up in the skirt of his tunic and hurried away, throwing a wink at Roland, while Charles, under Louis’s furious stare, stalked off to the forward castle.

“Oh, God, forgive me!” Louis cried. He sank to his knees by the railing, threw his arms around the polished oak, and sobbed convulsively.

Roland wept himself. The suffering in Louis’s face was like that in a statue of the crucified Christ.

Roland was about to go to him when someone brushed past him. Marguerite. She knelt beside her husband. Louis turned his agonized face to her. He put his arms around Marguerite and they knelt there weeping together.

Roland felt a light touch on his arm. He turned and saw Nicolette. As he moved to her, she drew him gently away toward the stern, leaving Louis and Marguerite alone together.

Once they were by themselves, Roland lifted his arms to embrace her.

“Not yet, Roland.” She held up her hands. “We must be seemly.”

He took her arm courteously. “Come walk with me to the after castle.”

They stood looking at the ship’s wake, the breeze blowing the galleass away from Egypt and cooling their faces. The coast of Africa now was a thin black line between violet sky and sea.

“If you want to weep as the King does, here I may hold you in my arms,” she said softly.

“All the men I brought with me are dead,” said Roland, “and I grieve as much for my ten as Louis does for his thousands.”

She laid her hand on his.

“Roland, it still feels strange to be free of Amalric, to be leaving Egypt behind, to be together with you. I cannot see what our lives will be like. Can you?”

“I want to live in Languedoc and do what we can to rebuild our country. You will want to have your children with you, and we may have to fight Amalric’s family to get them.”

She squeezed his hand harder. “Yes, Roland, I must have them back. I have missed them so much.” She laid her head on his chest. “Simon — he is still so little. He needs us.”

He put his arm protectively around her shoulders. “The King will help us.”

“We can live at my family’s estate,” she said. “It is mine again. Will it please you to be seigneur of a small domain?”

“I do not know yet what will please me,” he said, drawing her closer. “What I have done since I met you was at the bidding of Love, and for a vow I made to the martyrs of Mont Segur. My vow still holds. It is part of what I am. But I cannot slay all the murderers, and I cannot change all mankind. I can write songs, though. I think that in the end songs may change more than swords can.”

And, he thought, I have the seed of that poem the King asked me to write. The pilgrimage is itself the goal. Whether we arrive or not, we must journey toward the Light.

It had become quite dark, with the suddenness of African nightfall. They would not be seen here on the after castle of the galleass. He pressed her to him.

And he looked up at the stars that were coming out one by one and whispered to her, “All things that are, are lights.”

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