All Things Are Lights – Day 41 of 200

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.

It was hard to turn his mind to what he should be doing. The Queen had asked him a question, and he must answer.

“Madame, I am Orlando of Perugia, knight and troubadour. I apologize for arriving late, and I pray you that, if I have offended you, you will send me away at once. I had rather wander to the ends of the Earth than cause you a moment’s displeasure.”

“Saucy fellow,” said a voice from the dais, low but loud enough for him to hear.

Roland’s gaze shifted, and he saw Queen Blanche glowering down at him. He had heard that it was she, personally, who had insisted on the destruction of Mont Segur. If any person in this room was likely to be an enemy to him, it was Blanche of Castile.

“You are forgiven, Sire Orlando,” Marguerite said. “It is a long journey from Perugia to Paris.”

“Indeed it is, Madame,” Roland answered, smiling up at the Queen. Her brown eyes were friendly. She somewhat resembled Nicolette, though she was thinner and older. Two women of Languedoc, together at the court of Paris. Easy to see why they were close.

“But I made the journey here from Italy two years ago,” he went on. “It is Love that made me tardy today. I wanted above all else to compose a song especially for the lady I serve, on this occasion. I must confess my wits deserted me until this morning. I could not come here until my song was ready.”

He waited, holding his breath. For weeks he had sat, staring at his parchment, picking at his lute, making one false start after another. The phrases of melody that came to him reminded him of Diane. The images that arose were all of the One Light. But that was a concept of the Cathars, and that meant not Nicolette but Diane. He needed a song that would be altogether Nicolette’s.

He knew how important it was to her that she be the first and only love in his life. Again and again during their secret meetings in the upper room at the bookseller’s she had questioned him. Was there anyone else? Was he sure there was no one else?

Again and again she had come back to his presence at Mont Segur. Why had he left Paris so suddenly, without telling her? Was a woman involved? He hated himself for not being able to tell her the whole truth.

But he had renounced his love for Diane, so was it not the simple truth that Nicolette was the only woman in his life?

He knew, though, that the truth was not simple. And that knowledge made writing this song devilish hard.

When he thought about Nicolette, nothing worthy of her came to him. It was, he understood, the very urgency of his need to write a song for Nicolette that was blocking its creation. But knowing that did not help. He sat sweating, pounding his table with his fist, edging closer to despair as May Day approached. Only this morning — when, after a sleepless night, he realized he would have to write a song at once or not go at all — did he give up and let the song write itself.

How much easier it would have been to dredge up some song he had written long ago. But she had commanded a song especially for today, and her commands were sacred, and his art was, too. Where either was concerned he could not lie. So, half in anguish because, hinting, as it did at Diane’s faith, his was not fully, uniquely, a song for Nicolette, half in excitement because he was making something new and beautiful, he copied the song out as he heard it in his mind. Even then it took him most of the day. He prayed it would please her.

Having spoken of the lady he served, he thought it best not to look at her.

“To be tardy for love’s sake does you credit, Sire Orlando,” said Marguerite with a smile. “But you must pay some penalty for being late. You shall sing last of all.”

Now Roland looked at Nicolette and saw her eyes widen almost imperceptibly. She realized at once, as he did, Marguerite’s gift to him. Singing last would give him an advantage. An unknown in this distinguished group, he now would be the singer freshest in everyone’s mind when the judging came.

Chills of excitement raced through Roland’s body. He had a chance of winning now, winning for Nicolette.

He bowed low and said, “As you command, Madame. It is kind of you to let me compete at all.”

He went back to the contestants’ table and took a chair at the far end, next to a young knight with light blond hair.

“I had won last place by the luck of the draw, but you did me out of it,” said the blond man good-humoredly.

“Forgive me, Monseigneur.”

Behind the young knight stood a page holding a banner bearing six horizontal bars of red on white, the arms of the Coucy family. This must be Raoul de Coucy, a noted troubadour and a baron whose family held almost as much land as the Gobignons.

De Coucy patted him on the arm. “The song that made you late had better be worth all the fuss, that is all.”

They settled back to listen to the others.

At first the time passed pleasantly for Roland. To divert the company Marguerite had arranged for dancers, jugglers, and tumblers between songs. Roland glanced at Nicolette from time to time. Whenever their eyes met he felt a sweet, sad longing. He tried to remain relaxed, but beyond the first two hours the wait began to be well-nigh unbearable. Pages kept bringing pitchers of claret and trays of meat and cheese pastries. He refused them all. A wine goblet had been placed between Roland and Raoul de Coucy, but whenever the young nobleman offered it to him he shook his head. His stomach was clenched tight as a fist. He wondered if he had any chance. Probably not, though he had won first prize at two contests in Naples, and in both he had been competing against the Emperor himself. But here he would be singing in the Langue d’Oc, and these people were Northerners. He could only hope that Nicolette, at least, would like the song.

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