All Things Are Lights – Day 72 of 200

The next day, much closer, she saw that the chateau was wearing gay finery in honor of its master’s return, dozens of purple and gold Gobignon banners fluttering from the tall round towers. Amalric might have left Paris in disgrace, but his family and vassals, she knew, would treat his return as a triumph.

In Gobignon-la-Ville, the walled town that nestled at the base of the chateau’s hill, she rode beside Amalric past a crowd of cheering burghers, craftsmen, men-at-arms, and serfs. She glanced at Amalric and saw that he looked almost happy as he waved to them. They shouted for Nicolette, too, as she rode through the town, but the closer she came to the chateau walls the lonelier she felt.

When she rode through the barbican and into the courtyard, she saw Amalric’s whole family lined up to greet him, and her heart felt heavier still. None of them even looked at her. She had just spent the summer with these Gobignons, and now she dreaded a winter in their company. Countess Marie, Amalric’s mother, was the daughter of King Philippe Auguste and the sister of King Louis VIII, and she never let anyone forget it. Amalric’s brother Hugues was there, of course, his fanatical eyes piercing her. And there was a pack of ambitious, powerful relatives and vassals, who dropped to their knees before Amalric.

Their greeting should make him feel better, she thought. In Paris he had to yield to the King. Here he was king.

Amalric hoisted his eldest daughter, ten-year-old Isabelle, to sit in front of him on his horse. She thrust into his hands a little pillow she had embroidered for him, and Nicolette saw how moved he was.

As she watched the younger girls, Alix and Blanche, greet Amalric and hardly more than glance shyly at her, guilt jabbed Nicolette. Because they came from him, her children brought her little joy. She remembered how she had loved her own mother. It was terrible that such a wall must stand between her children and her. It was my fortune to meet and marry their father, and they are the innocent consequence. I am a bad mother, she thought, and grief and guilt made her heart heavy as stone.

How long can I stay in this place? she wondered.

Now she handed Amalric Marguerite’s letter, which might be the key to her escape. He dropped it to the paper-laden table without a glance.

He said harshly, “Visiting the Queen is out of the question. I need you here.”

Rage and rebellion boiled up in her.

“Good God, what do you need me for?” she burst out. “You got everything you wanted from me when you took my family’s estates.”

“I did not marry you for your lands, Nicolette.”

There was suffering, a look of yearning, in his face. She saw it but did not want to admit that she did.

“The King had it in mind to appoint me Constable of France, something I wanted more than anything in this world. And I lost the post because of that damned troubadour. Do you think I would ever have made such a sacrifice if it were not for you?”

Agree with him, she pleaded with herself. Tell him you appreciate him.

But before she could stop herself she said, “You never meant to sacrifice anything. You planned to kill that man in a way that would leave you looking blameless. But you lost your head when it turned out he was not as easy a victim as that poor jongleur.”

“By Saint Dominic, Madame! Your innocent Italian troubadour was trying to kill me.”

“It was your jealousy and cruelty that started it.”

Suddenly his eyes narrowed. “How did you know about the jongleur?”

Her body went cold.

My God, she thought, I have destroyed myself.

Amalric stood up, looking huge to her, stalked around the table, and seized her wrist.

Desperately she tried to pull away, her heart thudding. As his face drew close to hers, she felt faint, could hardly breathe.

“Only he knew about the jongleur.”

She had to clear her head. Her life might depend on her saying the right thing. He could strangle her right here.

“His whole household knew about it, and they made no secret of it,” she said. “Servants gossip, and it reaches one’s ears eventually.” She summoned all her strength to look calm.

“How did he get the handkerchief?” Amalric was a wolf with teeth fastened in a deer’s throat, unwilling to let go until his prey is dead.

“You told me to return it to him,” she answered, her guts churning. “I did as you commanded. I never thought he would be so mad as to wear it, much less at the tournament. I have told you again and again, this man has done nothing but pay me the harmless honor a troubadour offers to the lady he has chosen. A troubadour does not talk to his lady, he worships her from a distance. I have never given him permission even to speak to me.”

Breathing heavily, he still held her wrist. There was a strange blankness in his eyes, as if his rage had blinded him.

After a silence he said, “Do you swear that you have never known this man, that you have never been with him in secret?”

“Of course,” she said hastily.

“‘Of course’ will not do, Madame.” His hand still clamped on her, he dragged her out of the chamber. He pulled her down the spiraling stone stairs to the bottom level of the tower.

She did not dare struggle against him. Her hand was going numb, and pain was coursing through her body. She could hardly keep her footing on the steep stairs.

They emerged into the small chapel, so dark that its round, vaulted ceiling was barely visible, the only light a tiny, flickering candle burning at the altar. The Blessed Sacrament is in the tabernacle, she thought. He would not dare kill me here, in the presence of Jesus.

As her eyes adjusted to the dim light she saw with an inward shudder the seven stone boxes around the walls of the chapel that held the remains of earlier de Gobignons. Most frightening of all was the carved figure of Amalric’s father, Count Stephen, on his lack marble sarcophagus. One leg was crossed over the other as a sign that he had been a crusader. The stone eyes seemed open, staring at the chapel ceiling, the eagle’s face still alive with rage. She looked away quickly.

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