All Things Are Lights – Day 48 of 200

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.

By the time he was fully within her, his striving had brought him almost to his peak. Oh, why couldn’t their first embrace in so long last a little longer? The spasms of release were as much pain as pleasure, forcing a loud agonized cry from him. He let his body go limp.

He lay upon her a moment longer, breathing heavily. The room was so dark that he had to strain to see her face. Her eyes were still closed, and there was no longer any sign that he had hurt her. She looked serene, as if unaware of what had just happened.

He withdrew from her and turned on his side, his back to her, feeling sad and angry. Why must she lie there like a dead woman? He had lain with peasant girls and wives and daughters of the nobility. He could bring most women to heights of pleasure, make some so happy they ended by weeping hysterically. Why, then, could he give no delight to this one, who meant more to him than all the rest?

He wished he could talk to her about it, but with what words? The way he talked to his comrades in arms, to peasant wenches, that sort of crude speech would hardly do. The only way he knew was the way he had just tried, with his body. And she did not hear him.

If I were a troubadour, he told himself, with sweet songs and eloquent speeches, I could make her understand and win her heart. God, how I hate all those glib fops who have words for every occasion — lying words.

He lay on his back staring into the darkness and pictured the song contest, mincing, lisping troubadours beguiling the ladies. His fists clenched and unclenched.

That sneaking Orlando, trying to steal my honor through my wife!

I should have killed him after Mont Segur, or sent men after him as he rode north. I could still have my people do it right now here in Paris.

But she would know it was me.

By Saint Dominic, I want her to know!

No, she would despise me if I did it that way. I shall have to kill him publicly, in full view of everyone who did him honor, the Queen, the King, Nicolette, the entire court. It will have to be… a tournament!

But I cannot challenge him openly, he is too far beneath my station. I must make him come against me. Yes, I will provoke him. Insult him, hurt him so terribly he will burn for revenge. Then I will give him his chance. But make sure he has no chance whatever.

There are many ways to kill a man in a tournament, and I know them all.

“Nicolette.”

“Yes, Monseigneur.” Her voice was faint, distant.

“Stay far away from that man, Nicolette. He has vexed me for the last time. Before this year is out, I shall send him to join his heretic friends in Hell.”

He felt a faint movement in the bed, as if her body had stiffened. But she said nothing.

At dinner with Louis and other members of the royal family, Amalric, who had brought no clothing with him on his hasty journey, felt pleased with himself in a fine red damask mantle which Nicolette had borrowed for him from the King’s eldest brother, Count Robert d’Artois. Louis, as usual, was dressed in an unornamented robe, with the crusader’s cross on his shoulder. Why could not the King dress in keeping with his station?

Amalric was seated on Louis’s right at the linen-covered high table in the solar on the second story of the palace. Marguerite was at her husband’s left, and Nicolette on Amalric’s right. Farther along the table were Queen Blanche, the King’s brother, Robert d’Artois, and Robert’s countess.

The chair Amalric sat in was high-backed and comfortable. At most tables in France, even those of great barons, diners sat on benches, but the King’s wealth allowed him to provide a chair for each guest. Between each pair of guests was a handsome silver wine cup damascened with gold. A hum of conversation came from the guests at the lesser tables along the wall — the usual rabble of priests, friars, and poor knights Louis seemed to prefer for company. Smells of roasting meat, drifting up from the kitchen on the floor below, made water flow in Amalric’s mouth. He had eaten little on his journey.

Louis turned his great round eyes on Amalric and bent his long face toward him, raising the wine cup he and Marguerite were drinking from. “Dear cousin, you have exiled yourself from us too long. I shall want to hear about Beziers and the Minervois country you have been governing for us. But right now I want to talk to you about something very close to my heart.”

“Sire, whatever is important to you is equally important to me,” said Amalric with a sinking feeling.

He turned away to wash his hands in a silver basin held for him by an equerry. He was sure Louis was going to start in on his pious nonsense.

“I speak of the enterprise of Jerusalem,” said Louis, eyes aglow. “I beg you to join our crusade, cousin.'”

Amalric now felt rage rising in his throat. I am to abandon everything I have fought and bled for to follow you on a mad quest to Outremer, because you would rather be a saint than a proper king? He tore off a chunk of the King’s expensive white bread and stuffed it into his mouth to hide whatever feelings showed in his face.

“Louis, Louis, spare us this endless talk of Jerusalem,” Queen Blanche cut in.

Now, there is a great woman. If only she were still ruling the kingdom.

“Please, dear Mother,” said Louis quietly. “Cousin Amalric has not heard this.”

“I have great responsibilities, sire,” said Amalric quietly. “My conscience tells me I must remain at home.”

“Indeed, you have great responsibilities,” said Louis with his damnable gentle smile. “Are you not one of our greatest seigneurs, a Peer of the Realm? You would bring with you hundreds of knights, contribute immeasurably to our supplying. Whereas, if you remain behind, good cousin, our pilgrimage will be a horse with three legs.”

The King’s servants put platters of lobsters and new beans boiled in milk on the serving window of the solar, and equerries carried them to the tables and began to break the lobsters up for the diners. The guests fell silent as they began to eat. The royal cook, Isambert, was generally acknowledged the best in France.

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