All Things Are Lights – Day 47 of 200

For the first time since he met her, she smiled.

“Your clemency makes me very happy. I will receive you, Count Amalric. Though I must warn you, I do not think I can easily help hating you.”

And I do not think I can easily help loving you, he had said in his heart as she turned away.

But now, because of the strength of that love and the pain it caused him, it was easier for him to travel about and not see her for months at a time.

“I went to the bookstalls near Notre-Dame to buy this for Isabelle,” Nicolette was saying, taking the book from the page as he stood by and proffering it to Amalric. She dismissed the page with a wave of her hand.

Amalric made no move to take it.

“It is Reynard the Fox, a most amusing tale. Do you approve?”

He felt tormented. Was she telling the truth, or was buying the book a pretext for meeting the troubadour?

When he remained silent she gave a tiny shrug and turned to Agnes. The maid took the book and helped Nicolette off with her cloak.

An equerry in a blue tunic embroidered with gold fleurs-de-lis came to them and bowed. “Monseigneur, Madame the Queen has set rooms aside for your use where you can rest. Will it please you to follow me?”

Amalric walked beside Nicolette up the stone steps.

“How is it that Queen Marguerite knew you were coming and I did not?” Nicolette asked.

“The equerry was speaking of Queen Blanche.”

“Oh,” said Nicolette, as if that explained everything.

He took her arm, tentatively at first, then firmly.

She offered no resistance.

She never resists me, he thought angrily. But neither does she ever truly yield.

“Monseigneur, you have come here in great haste,” Nicolette said, too low for the equerry to hear. Her brown eyes stared directly into Amalric’s as they mounted the steps. “Have you heard ill tales about me? The old queen, I fear, may be trying to turn you against me.”

If only he could safely trust those innocent eyes.

The equerry opened a heavy oak door and bowed them into a spacious chamber dominated by a huge, canopied bed. Three of the walls were covered with embroidered silk hangings. Four large windows, their glazed casements flung open to the spring air, lined the other wall. Glancing through the nearest window, Amalric saw the pale early leaves of a plane tree that grew in the palace garden below.

“The Queen asks that you and the Countess dine with the royal family tonight, Monseigneur,” the equerry said.

Blanche had said something about dinner to Amalric just after he arrived, and added that she hoped he might talk the King out of crusading in the Holy Land. Could that be the real reason she wants me here? he asked himself.

He had a reason all his own for wanting to speak to Louis. After Mont Segur he and Hugues had spent much time discussing how next to advance the house of Gobignon. Their next step depended on the King’s favor.

“We shall be honored to sit at table with the King,” Amalric answered, and the equerry left, closing the door behind him.

“Now then, Amalric,” said Nicolette, turning to face him, “what is it that brings you here?”

“As you seem to have guessed, Queen Blanche wrote me that I had best come and see to my wife. She said that you allowed an Orlando of Perugia to present you with the prize he won in the Queen’s song contest, that you let him pay public court to you. Is this true?”

She was so much shorter than he, and yet she managed to look up at him so haughtily. The same way she had looked at him the first day they met.

“Monseigneur, it has long been the custom among civilized people for a lady to accept the homage of a troubadour. It does not mean I have made love with him.”

“Be still!” Amalric snapped, shocked and also furious that she would suggest he was uncivilized. “That is a shameful way to talk.”

“Is that not what you are thinking? And how else can I defend myself?”

He dared not believe the worst of her. Or he would have no choice but to kill her. “I do not doubt your virtue, Nicolette.”

“Then why this anger?” she asked coolly.

He stared at her dark red lips. How he wanted to kiss them.

“It offends me that you should show even the slightest favor to that Italian dog.”

“Is he your enemy, Monseigneur?”

Again, Nicolette’s wide brown eyes as he stared into them seemed innocent. And how lovely she looked. He felt a fluttering in his stomach and a quickening in his heartbeat. To the Devil with this quarreling! Still, he must tell her what had really happened at Mont Segur.

“That man is too far beneath me to be my enemy. And yet he dared insult me in front of my own men. He impugned my courage. So we fought, and he used low brigand’s tricks to overcome me. He humiliated me, very nearly killed me. And this is the man you have shown favor to.”

“I had heard that he fought with you,” she said gravely. “But you have bested so many men in combat. Is each one, then, your lifelong enemy?”

“Many are dead,” he said with satisfaction. “Of those I have spared, yes, most would like to see me dead. Even so, this is different. He fought dishonorably. Thus he owes me a debt of honor, which he must pay by dying at my hand. You are to have no more contact with him. You are to return forthwith any gifts he has given you, as a sign of your scorn of him.”

“And if I refuse?”

That made him angry. She had grown unruly in the time they had been apart.

He advanced on her, his hand upraised.

She stared up at him, unflinching.

He swung and slapped her.

“You will show respect for me, and you will guard my honor.”

Nicolette glared at him. The red mark where he struck her was bright on her creamy cheek.

“Do not ever hit me again.”

He pressed her back toward the bed. “I am your husband. It is my right.”

Her look was venomous. “Yes, it is your right. But never exercise it again.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“I have made no threat. I demand only that you treat me with respect, nothing more.”

“Nothing more, eh?”

He found himself once again thrilled by her courage, the hardihood of a small young woman defying the most formidable knight in all of France. He knew only one way to express what he felt for her. He put his hands lightly on her shoulders and pressed her gently toward the bed.

“I will not hit you again. There is another right I would assert, Nicolette.”

“Of course, Monseigneur.”

There was no interest in her voice, much less love. Only acquiescence. Even after all this time apart. But his eagerness for her overrode that.

She lay back on the big, soft bed, her eyes fixed on a spot somewhere above him.

Trying not to feel injured by her indifference, he stared at her breasts rising and falling under the silk of her gown. Her body could almost have been a boy’s, were it not for those breasts, whose fullness he loved to hold.

He lay down beside her, unbuckling his belt and dropping it to the floor. The three-sided dagger that had stabbed the troubadour clattered on the oak boards. He moved closer, pressing his palm against one of her breasts. Touching her so after so long a time made his groin ache.

He hastily bared his loins and drew up her gown. But then he paused and tenderly stroked her cheek.

If only she would smile at him. But she was still looking past him, into the darkness above them.

Kissing her was like biting into a fruit that was beautiful but had no taste. Her mouth yielded but did not answer.

Her eyes were closed now, and she was breathing deeply, as if asleep. Her arms and legs were relaxed, unresisting.

He moved to mount her. She was closed and dry. Breathing harshly, he pressed into her again and again, forcing entry little by little. He saw her grimace with pain, and he quickly shut his eyes.

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