All Things Are Lights – Day 40 of 200

“The first thing you should understand,” she said, “is that we do not consider ourselves heretics. We are the true Christians.”

VII

Roland handed the parchment scroll to the royal sergeant at the tall doors of the great audience hall. As the sergeant examined the invitation, Roland stood tensely, forcing his hands not to tremble. He had just heard the bell of the palace chapel chime the hour of None, and his nervousness about performing was compounded by knowing that he was three hours late. The Queen’s song contest had begun at midday.

The sergeant gave Roland a puzzled look.

“I know,” Roland said. “I should have been here last night for the royal banquet. But I have come from a great distance, you see.”

“It is the Queen you will have to answer to, not me, Messire.” The sergeant snapped his fingers, and two pages in long blue tunics embroidered with gold fleurs-de-lis pushed open the doors. Drawing himself erect, Roland strode through, followed by Perrin.

The stone hall was the largest he had ever seen. It was decorated for May Day, the dark oak ceiling beams festooned with garlands of yellow, blue, pink, and white spring flowers, just as Nicolette had told him it would be.

Courtiers in bright silks and satins were seated along the sides of the room at trestle tables covered with white linen cloths. The women wore headbands of silver and gold threads over their translucent couvre-chefs, the men yellow or violet caps adorned with long feathers. Behind the seated gentlefolk, people of lesser degree in brightly colored smocks and frocks stood crowded along the walls.

Sunlight streamed in through high windows paned, not with sheets of horn as in so many great halls, but with real glass, of a pearly white color. The daylight was so bright that the fat yellow candles in tall brass candlesticks placed around the vast room were hardly necessary. Between the windows the walls were hung with the silk banners embroidered with the arms of the great barons of France. Roland couldn’t help himself, and his eyes strayed to the purple and gold Gobignon banner, far up the hall on the right. The banner beside it bore the arms of Blanche of Castile, a castle with six turrets.

At the end of the hall, on a raised dais, sat the Queen, wearing a crown of cherry blossoms.

And beside her, Nicolette.

He glowed inwardly at the sight of her.

But she must be furious at me for coming late, he thought.

An extraordinarily fat troubadour stood in the center of the room, bowing to acknowledge the hearty applause that followed his song. He was accompanied by three jongleurs. He, too, wore a garland on his head, of pink Damascus roses. His crimson mantle was cut with jagged edges. His hose was embroidered with rich fretwork, and the long, pointed toes of his green boots curled up. A bit ostentatious, thought Roland. But I wish I had heard him sing.

The fat troubadour, he knew, could be no one else but Thibaud, Count of Champagne. It was he who had brought Damascus roses back from the Holy Land. But he was more renowned, Roland recalled, as the troubadour whose love had comforted Blanche for several years, after the sudden death of her husband had left her a young widow.

And there is the old tigress herself. Roland noticed Blanche of Castile on the other side of Queen Marguerite. Blanche wore her invariable white mourning gown and, unlike the other ladies, no flowers. Hard to picture that fat man and that dried-up old woman as lovers. But who knows what I will look like when I’m old — if I live to be old.

Roland realized that now he himself had drawn attention from the dais. Queen Marguerite was staring at him and whispering to Nicolette. Nicolette was looking at him, but her face, as far as he could tell at this distance, showed no particular emotion. Others noticed the direction of the Queen’s gaze and turned, too. Roland heard Perrin, at his side, give a little grunt of dismay.

The applause for Thibaud faded away. The rotund count, his present moment of glory cut short by Roland’s arrival, waddled off the floor. Scowling, he took his seat at the trestle table at Marguerite’s right. The contestants were seated there in a row, looking, Roland thought, like a parliament of peacocks, each one in brighter plumage than the next. Behind them, back from the table, their jongleurs were seated holding lutes, lyres, Irish harps, vielles, rebecks, gitterns, sackbuts, clarions. Pages carrying heraldic banners stood behind the more high-born contestants. One troubadour, Roland noticed with surprise, was wearing the spotless white mantle of the Knights Templar.

Roland was about to move to the contestants’ table when Queen Marguerite’s stern voice rang out in the now silent hall.

“Come forward, Messire. Tell us who you are.”

“God’s bones!” Roland heard Perrin whisper to himself.

Roland wished he were back in Sicily. But he put on a brave face and marched forward.

“Madame.” He made a deep bow and walked the length of the marble-tiled floor, his black cloak sweeping behind him.

As he walked Roland glanced left and right. This might be his only chance to see these great ones of whom he had heard so much. That blond man with the long face and those big eyes, in the plain robe sitting amongst the courtiers, that must be King Louis. Yes, they say he doesn’t like to dress up. What should I do? Stop, bow to him? No, this is the Queen’s day, and he looks as if he doesn’t want to be noticed. King Louis smiled faintly and nodded to Roland as he passed.

Nicolette was frozen-faced at the dais, her hands clenched as if her fingers were in knots.

How I hope she likes my song enough to forgive me any pain my lateness has caused her. Thank Saint Michel, no one but she knows I sing for her.

Roland stopped before the dais and dropped to one knee. From under his brows he stole a glance at Nicolette. Her light blue outer tunic, thrown back over her shoulders, was fastened at the neck by a gold pin in the shape of a love knot. Beneath the tunic she wore a violet gown with a low neckline. A necklace with green jeweled pendants lay against her creamy skin. Her wavy black hair was bound in a caul of gold thread and crowned by a wreath of scilla.

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