All Things Are Lights – Day 43 of 200

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.

“And now, gracious Ladies and Seigneurs,” said Queen Marguerite, standing up, “we invite you to feast, while we struggle with the impossible task of deciding which of these splendid artists has earned the prize.” She held it up, a dark blue silk scarf of Palermo, patterned with gold crescents. Roland joined in the applause. The King rose and bowed from his great height, and all the men followed his example. Marguerite then led half a dozen ladies from her high table.

Now Roland could drink. He held out the empty goblet that stood between him and de Coucy to a servant, who filled it with bright red wine. He drained the goblet at a gulp, had it refilled, and turned to Perrin.

“What did you think?”

Perrin grinned. “Not bad, master. Not bad.”

“The Devil roast you.”

Perrin laughed.

After what seemed like hours, a blast of trumpets stilled the audience. The ladies filed in from the side and again took their places. The hall stood silent.

Roland’s heart was pumping frenziedly.

I must not let it matter, he told himself. The main thing is that before all this hall I proclaimed my love for my lady, and that she knows it is she.

As Marguerite was about to announce the winner, Roland noticed that Blanche was not beside the young Queen but was standing off to one side of the head table. As if to show that she does not support their decision, Roland thought.

Fear chilled his spine, not so much for himself as for Nicolette. Knowing how dangerous Blanche could be, he almost hoped for a moment that it was not he who had won, that her displeasure was directed elsewhere.

His eyes then met Nicolette’s, and he actually felt faint.

Marguerite spoke. “It is the judgment of the ladies of the royal court of France that the highest prize has been won fairly and fully by the knight of Perugia, Sire Orlando.”

Roland felt as if his heart had stopped altogether. His face went hot as a blacksmith’s furnace.

Cheers and applause rang all around him, but the sound was faint, as if he had gotten water in his ears. He felt hands pushing at him. They wanted him to get to his feet.

“Look alive, master!” Perrin was saying. “Get up and claim your prize.”

“Good fellow!” de Coucy was shouting, clapping him on the back. “I knew it would be you.”

In a daze, Roland forced his limbs to carry him out into the center of the room. Perrin, hurrying after, shoved the neck of the lute into Roland’s hand. Roland made his way to the dais one deliberate step at a time, feeling the continued cheering as if it were a tide through which he had to push his way.

He saw Nicolette sitting beside Marguerite, motionless, her eyes bright.

If only I could take you in my arms, he thought.

He knelt and laid the brightly painted lute on the floor before the Queen.

“Sire Orlando,” said Marguerite, “I hope you will continue to sing — and your jongleur to play — as well as you did tonight, bringing honor to this prize and to the ladies who award it to you.” She unfolded the square of blue and gold silk so that everyone could see it, and then released it to float down into Roland’s outstretched hands.

“May you never regret bestowing this prize upon me, Madame,” said Roland, raising his head.

Again he looked at Nicolette, and had to fight an urge to show everyone here what she meant to him.

As Roland stood up, a crowd of ladies and troubadours pressed around him, introducing themselves and congratulating him. His hands cold, holding the silk as if it were fragile as a cobweb, he looked past the people near him, trying to see Nicolette.

The Templar clapped him on the shoulder. “Magnificent, Sire Orlando. You sing in the Langue d’Oc quite without accent,” he said in Italian. “When I speak it or sing in it, anyone can tell I am Italian. “

Roland, feeling exposed, stiffened. He had to make an effort not to clench his hands on the scarf. He felt immediate distrust for Bruchesi. The eight-pointed cross on the monk’s white mantle was a blatant reminder that the Templars were crusaders.

Still, their order had held aloof from the rape of Languedoc.

“The Langue d’Oc,” said Roland carefully in the southern speech, “has been the tongue of all the great troubadours, and so I prefer it.”

And then Nicolette was standing beside him.

This triumph is yours as much as mine, Roland wanted to tell her.

Nicolette moved toward him, almost protectively, as if she, too, feared there might be enemies in this crowd.

Barely whispering, his lips formed the words, “Mi dons.”

The circle gave way to admit Queen Marguerite, who came to him and said, “About the Langue d’Oc I quite agree, Sire Orlando. I, too, will always love the speech of my Provencal childhood. Though now that the north has triumphed, I fear we will always have to say oil instead of oc when we mean yes.”

Roland then bowed to Queen Marguerite. “A lady’s ‘yes’ has a sweet sound in any language, Madame.”

“Spoken like a troubadour, Messire.” Marguerite laughed. “Yet I fear the torch of poetry has passed, perhaps” — she nodded graciously to him — “to Italy, and from Languedoc we shall never again hear the like of Arnaut Daniel or Bernart de Ventadour.”

“Yes, but surely,” said a new voice, “the beauty of a language is created by the poetry written in that language. If beautiful songs are sung in the Langue d’Oil, it will become great.”

Everyone turned. The King stood before Roland in his plain dark robe, the red cross of a crusader sewn on one shoulder. Louis towered over everyone.

Roland dropped to one knee.

“Please stand up, Messire,” said the King, patting Roland on the shoulder. “I merely wish to thank you for that exquisite song. And to congratulate you on winning this lovely prize.”

Roland rose and studied Louis’s face. How innocent he appeared. Thirty-one, but he could as easily be twenty-one. The cross on his shoulder, Nicolette had told him, came from some mad notion the King had of delivering Jerusalem from the Turks.

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