All Things Are Lights – Day 85 of 200

“These soldiers of the cross may not need your shrift, good friar,” said Nicolette quickly, “but I believe that sometimes God ordains chance meetings for our greater good.”

D’Etampes snapped his helmeted head around to stare at her, astonished.

“And I have a special admiration for the Franciscan order,” she went on. “Would you vouchsafe to hear my confession?” she said to the ragged-looking friar who was Roland.

D’Etampes looked annoyed and anxious. “Madame, you have no idea who this fellow is. He may not even be a true friar.”

D’Etampes’s concern was not altogether foolish. Languedoc patriots had been known to disguise themselves as Catholic clergy.

“I am sure these friars will not mind if you search them, and you can stand near enough to protect me, as long as you are out of earshot.”

“Search them?” said Sire Guy, staring disgustedly at the dirty pair in their ragged robes.

He is afraid of those fleas and lice, she thought. “Do as you think best,” she said. “I shall wait in the chapel out of the rain.”

Most of the chapel was open to the sky, the roof long since stripped away by wood-hungry peasants. She could shelter herself, she saw, by the altar, which was protected by a vault of stone.

She trembled as she anticipated their talk. She feared she might utter words of hatred, and she dreaded even more what she might hear from him.

Dare I tell him about the child? Her body was cold with fright. What would he do to keep his child from falling into Amalric’s hands?

The rhythmic drip of rainwater echoed like the tapping of countless tiny hammers. She watched a man-at-arms, ordered by Guy d’Etampes, hastily pat Roland’s ragged frieze robe. A paltry search, if Roland really were a Languedoc patriot with murder on his mind.

Then, with his hands folded before him, Roland was pacing over the flagstone floor. Sire Guy, she noticed, stood in the doorway of the chapel, glowering at Roland’s back.

Roland trembled as he approached the small figure seated by the altar. He ached to run to her, kneel to her, beg her forgiveness. But he had to keep up his pretense.

Was there anything he could say to her that would win her back? She had not denounced him at once. That might be a hopeful sign.

She took off her leather hat and looked up at him, and he saw hatred smoldering in her eyes. His heart sank. Yet what delight, even in his pain, to see her face again.

He tried to smile. “You had better kneel if you want to make this look like a real confession,” he said softly.

Glaring at him, she slowly dropped to her knees.

“It is you who should be kneeling to me,” she whispered fiercely. “If I had seen you in Paris you would be two months dead. I could still do it. I have my dagger with me.”

He felt an impulse to test her, to tear open his friar’s robe and bare his chest. I would rather die here, looking at her, than anywhere else.

He thought of the blade strapped to the inside of his thigh, where no self-respecting knight would ever put his hand.

“I have my weapon, too. Your husband’s vassals are not very expert.”

He saw her lips twitch in a little smile. Hope leaped up in him.

He seated himself on the altar steps, a discreet distance from her but close enough so that they could talk in low voices. He could smell the dirt and stale sweat on his body and was glad of the space between them.

How to begin? He had composed hundreds of speeches in his mind as he and Perrin traveled south. At night, lying beside the road on cold stones, he had stared up at the pitiless November stars and wondered what he could say that would move her. Now the moment to speak had come, and he felt as if he were falling into emptiness. He forced the words out through a constricted throat.

“You are still mi dons,” he said. “My life is at your disposal. I have come to let you do as you will with me. In my soul, I do indeed kneel before you, dumbly adoring you, humbly imploring you.”

He looked at her and saw in the dim light that filtered down through the broken roof of the church that her face was flushed with anger.

“How dare you speak so?” she whispered. “You have betrayed every vow we made to each other.” Tears sparkled in her eyes. “You love another woman.”

He shook his head. “I loved another woman. When I learned that Diane had become a perfecta, I felt as if she had died. I do not deny that she holds a special place in my heart, but it is a niche for a saint’s statue. You are the only one now.”

But even as he spoke, he searched his heart, as he had so many times before. Did he really feel as if Diane were dead? When he knew so well that she was living, and in his house? Part of the pain he felt now rose from the knowledge that all this was his fault. He could have sent Diane away. She had begged him to send her away. And yet he had never been able to let her go. He had clung to her, and now this was the result.

“I feel about you as you say you feel about Diane,” Nicolette said, her voice breaking. “As if you had died.”

It is hopeless, he thought. She will never understand. She will never forgive me.

But something in him would not give up.

“You must believe that I never touched Diane. I have had nothing to do with any woman since the day we met in the secret room at Guillaume’s. Since long before that.”

He looked away. Confessors do not stare at their penitents.

She asked, “What is to become of Guillaume?”

He was surprised at her change of subject.

“He has been lucky. They have not been able to prove heresy against him. Of course, inquisitors can find evidence to prove anything they want to, but the King himself asked them to be fair with Guillaume. I managed to put in a word. So the Inquisition only confiscated his house and his books — burned quite a few — and ordered him out of Paris. He will move to England. No Inquisition there.”

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