All Things Are Lights – Day 42 of 200

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.

He wanted to make a gift of it to her, to perform a deed that would be for her alone. He wished he could honor her publicly, as the troubadours of Languedoc had paid open homage to their ladies in the great days of courtly love.

He listened intently to the rondeaus, ballades, sirventes, and canzones as the hall grew dark and servants lit more candles along the walls and tables. It was the skill of his rivals as makers of poetry and composers of music that interested him more than the singing and playing. Often, indeed, the creator of the song was not the one who performed it. A jongleur might sing his master’s song, though when the master’s voice was good enough, the jongleur would provide only accompaniment.

Each troubadour or trouvere seemed to have his own band of partisans, who applauded him clamorously, to Roland’s amusement. The contestants sang in every language, mostly in Langue d’Oil, but also in Langue d’Oc, Spanish, Italian, Latin, even German. Roland understood all the songs well enough. A well-traveled troubadour had to be versed in many languages.

It was in Latin that the most unusual man present that day sang. Roland had noticed him earlier, a Knight Templar from Verona named Guido Bruchesi. Like all Templars, and unlike all other knights, he wore his black beard long, halfway down the white Templar mantle, which was sewn front and back with red crosses. What was he doing here? Roland had heard of priests and friars who also were troubadours, but a warrior monk who also sang was unusual indeed.

Roland enjoyed Brother Guido’s ballade. It was pious enough, a hymn to the Virgin Mary, but it amused Roland to think he caught a number of hidden allusions to Love. The Templar’s voice was a magnificent tenor, and he finished on a high note that brought many in the audience to their feet, applauding.

A Hungarian refugee from the Tartars, Sire Cosmas, sang something in his own language, which no one understood. Roland knew even Arabic, having learned it from the Sicilian Moors at the Emperor’s court, but he had never before heard Hungarian. Still, Cosmas was politely applauded. Then Raoul de Coucy sang a simple, beautiful canzone. Roland was still applauding when de Coucy sat down again.

“I shall tell you a secret,” said de Coucy with a grin. “I am not a proper trouvere. That was for my wife.”

Now it was Roland’s turn. He felt his heart beating so hard he thought people could surely see his chest throbbing. He pushed back his cloak to display the embroidered silver griffin, the insignia granted his family by the Emperor. No one here, he was sure, would recognize the griffin or, for that matter, have heard of the de Vencys. On a silver chain around his neck he wore another memento from Frederic, an ancient bronze medallion of Apollo playing a lyre. He hoped he made a decent appearance. This morning he had rubbed away at his heavy beard with a pumice stone till his cheeks felt silky to his fingertips.

He walked slowly to the center of the room with Perrin, a step behind him, carrying a lute painted in a pattern of red, yellow, and green diamonds.

Roland stood perfectly still, allowing a silence to build. Perrin tuned the lute, string by string. Everyone in the room stopped eating, drinking, and conversing, and leaned forward attentively.

Marguerite is on our side, I can feel it, Roland thought. But the rest of them? This was a demanding, knowing audience, schooled in music from childhood, skilled in judging. Many of these men and women could have performed as well as the contestants.

Perrin struck a chord.

Roland breathed deeply and expanded his chest.

He allowed himself a brief glance at Nicolette.

She looked back, and then closed her eyes.

He began.

“What makes the sun shine less than bright?
Why seems the moon’s glow less than pure?
Madame, look in my heart this night;
For all life’s ills here find the cure:
One light outshines all lights above,
The light within, the light of Love.”

The melody he had chosen was slow, almost languid. While he had been working on it, he had been thinking of a boat drifting down a moonlit river. It was a gentle yet radiant tune, he thought, suggesting the afterglow of love.

He heard his baritone voice fill the hall, resonating against the stone walls and roof timbers. His native tongue rang out as a challenge to these northerners who had sent the Albigensian Crusade and destroyed his country.

But in his words and tones, highlighted by the rippling notes of the lute, he tried to convey the secret ecstasy of l’amour courtois. Nicolette, he hoped, would hear echoes of the words he had spoken in her ear. This song is for you, Nicolette.

“I lie sleepless all through the night.
I walk by day but still am dreaming.
She who appears in my mind’s sight
Is truth; this world is but a seeming.
One light outshines all lights above,
The light within, the light of Love.”

Roland had finished his song, and for a moment he heard not a sound anywhere in the hall. Then a thunder of applause beat at his ears, and he felt his face grow hot. Some of the applause, he knew, was for all the contestants, some for the contest itself, but he could feel that much of it was for him. He bowed and walked back to his seat. About half his fellows at the trestle table were applauding vigorously. The others applauded, too, but with little enthusiasm. Keeping his eyes down, Roland dropped into the chair Perrin held for him.

De Coucy squeezed his arm. “I doubt I have heard better singing in my life. You were the best, my good fellow. The best all day. No question about it.”

The words were very pleasant to hear, but what Roland felt most of all was relief. He sat limp in his chair and thanked Saint Michel that for good or ill he had done what he had to do, he had not dishonored his lady, and it was over.

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