All Things Are Lights – Day 25 of 200

Nicolette shut her eyes, as blackness seemed to fall around her like a curtain. She felt as if she were an earthenware figure someone had smashed to bits with a hammer. Surely Orlando was now lost to her. Amalric, until he was avenged, would never rest. And how could she and Orlando ever meet, now that Amalric would be watching him, hating him? If the troubadour had escaped death at Mont Segur, it was only death briefly deferred.

Then her mood abruptly changed. Anger blazed up in her, and she felt her body grow hot. How could Orlando do this to her? Rage drove out grief. She clenched her fists in her lap.

What kind of man was this troubadour that he would first woo her, then turn his back on her to take part in a war against her homeland? How could he be such a fool as to challenge her husband? No, no, no, he is not worthy of Love, she told herself.

But then an image of the lean, dark face, the dazzling blue eyes, and their soul-searching gaze came to her. And she felt herself aching with longing.

Marguerite tried to console Nicolette. “Orlando was a fool. You will be much happier if you forget him. Besides, all troubadours are mad.”

Nicolette pretended to take her seriously, but within she kept asking herself, How can I see him?

It was only later that Nicolette realized, with amazement, that if the fight had gone otherwise, she would now be a widow. The thought of such freedom sent a small thrill through her. Then she felt ashamed. How monstrous, to wish her husband, her children’s father, dead. And how would she live, a widow with three daughters, dependent on Amalric’s family? Would that be an escape, or a trap far worse than her marriage?

The prospect of death…

It brought her mind back to the long figure on the bed before her. Louis was only thirty. What a shame. It seemed terribly unfair to Nicolette that Louis should die so young. France needs him. There is no one else.

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, she thought: Christmas, one thousand two hundred forty-four. But there was no Christmas gaiety here at Pontoise among those gathered at the royal bedside. People stood around the huge bed, watching the King with foreboding, watching one another with suspicion. Nicolette felt uneasy among them. She felt their presence almost as a physical pressure at her back. They were breathing the good air the King needed, air she herself needed.

Closest to the bedside were Queen Marguerite, whom Nicolette loved and pitied, and Queen Blanche of Castile, whom Nicolette feared. Near the two queens stood Louis’s three younger brothers, Robert, Charles, and Alphonse. They were strong young men, but Nicolette felt none of them had the ability of their elder brother. A bit farther away were the highest officials of the court. Beyond them were bishops, barons, abbots, the heads of religious orders. And in an outermost circle were still others, more than could fit into the room. Almost all the great ones of the realm had come to pay homage and witness Louis’s passing. A king, Nicolette had heard it said, never dies alone.

She sensed a stirring on the bed. The King’s large eyes opened, and he stared up at her. Gasping with the effort, he levered himself into a sitting position, pushing back the tentative hand she put forth to hold him down. His forehead glistened with sweat, and he trembled under his white shirt as he held up the heavy wooden crucifix, clutching it with both hands.

The buzz of the crowd faded, and a silence fell over the room.

“Jerusalem is lost,” he said in a voice that was now loud and firm, no longer a delirious murmur.

“Jerusalem is lost,” he repeated, “and I have seen my duty.” Now he seemed to stare at the fire in the huge hearth across the room.

Why does he keep talking about Jerusalem? Nicolette wondered. Behind her she heard people whispering the same question to one another. An uneasiness came over her; a premonition that something strange and terrible might soon happen.

“Peace, my son, peace,” said Queen Blanche, moving to stand beside him, a tall, thin woman in a gown of white satin. She had been wearing white, the color of mourning for queens, ever since the death of Louis’s father, and people called her the white Queen. She had ruled France all alone for ten years, until Louis came of age.

Nicolette was terrified of Blanche. She would never forget what had happened last year, when Louis’s first son was born, a terrible childbirth that had almost killed Marguerite. Louis had been visiting Marguerite. Nicolette, too, had been there, at her friend’s bedside. Suddenly Blanche had burst in and demanded that her son leave and come with her at once, claiming pressing state business.

“Alas,” Marguerite had wept. “Can I not have him with me even when I am dying?”

Blanche had whirled and stared coldly at her daughter-in-law.

“You have provided us with a royal heir. My son no longer needs you.”

Blanche frightened most members of the court. She was a harsh woman of strong opinions, quick to find fault and totally unforgiving.

“What duty do you speak of, sire?” Marguerite now asked Louis as she leaned over the bedside.

“There will be time enough to talk of duty when you are better,” said Queen Blanche, glaring at her daughter-in-law from under heavy eyebrows.

“Jerusalem,” the King again intoned, his pale blue eyes fixed on the fireplace as if in its glow he was seeing those golden towers and crystal waters.

Nicolette wondered, had the fever made him mad?

“Louis, please,” his mother begged.

“Let him speak!” Marguerite cried.

The clash of the two women closest to him seemed to draw the King down from his feverish exaltation, and he spoke more calmly. “I am going to take the crusader’s cross, Mother. As I lay almost dead just now, I promised God that if He would let me live I would lead a crusade to liberate Jerusalem.”

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