Crusader's Torch Page 11

"That has been done before," Olivia told him. "Fraire Herchambaut addressed the Bourgesses already." She saw the expression on his face, the despair in his eyes, and she relented. "But my case had not been pleaded by a Hospitaler. Forgive me. I did not mean to speak against you."

"You have reason for curtness." He again leaned forward, as if drawn on invisible wires.

"But not at your expense." She loosened her hands and made herself calmer. "You come to offer me aid and I make complaint to you, when you are not concerned with what has gone before."

"I wish I had been," he said, inwardly damning himself for speaking so rashly. "I wish I had known from my first day in Tyre that you needed my help, for then, I… I—"

Olivia smiled, her face changing subtly. She tilted her head, thinking he would go on, and when he did not, she said, "I wish I had spoken to you before now, as well. You are kind, Bonsier, and I have grown unused to that."

His throat ached with words he could not speak. He took her hand, then released it. "I am a sworn Hospitaler, and to conduct myself otherwise dishonors us both."

"Does touching my hand mean so much?" Olivia wondered aloud. "It does not seem so to me, but Romans, you know, have their own standards for such things." She looked at him differently now, noticing his dark blue eyes and his tawny hair. His voice was pleasant, and he was not so very young that he seemed little more than a child to her, as so many did now. "Tell me, how old are you?"

He stared at her, bemused. "I am twenty-seven," he said after a moment. "I am from Saint-Prosperus-lo-Boys."

"Isn't twenty-seven a trifle old for the Hospitalers?" Olivia asked, intrigued.

"For some, perhaps. I have fought for my King, and it… it…" He looked away from her, shamed by what he was going to say to her. "It sickened me."

"Small wonder," said Olivia.

"I became a Hospitaler in the hope that God would forgive me if I rendered honorable service in His cause." He was whispering now, as if he sat in confession. "It has not happened yet; look. I have not courage enough to face you."

"Am I so terrible?" Olivia asked, taking care to keep all trace of humor from her voice, so that he would not think she mocked him.

"Most terrible," he said, staring down at his hands. "Your look is… mortal."

Olivia was taken aback. "Mortal?" Her laugh was short and hurt-filled. "Surely not."

At last he was able to turn toward her again. "What do you mean?"

She shook her head, then tentatively reached for his hand. "There. If anyone is dishonored, I am." She looked down at his straight, long, blunt fingers, his wide, heavily lined palms. "You are something rare, something I did not expect to find inside a knight's cote."

"A coward," he said, making a halfhearted attempt to pull away from her.

"Oh, no. Not a coward." Whatever else she might have said was put aside as Alfaze came into the reception room. She released Rainaut's hands and rose. "You have brought the documents?"

"Yes, mistress," said Alfaze. Nothing in his manner showed he had noticed what had passed between her and Rainaut. "There are true copies of all the inventories and of all bequests, as well as your indication that you have access to a ship for your journey, and the owner has reserved space for you, your goods, and retinue for the voyage." He bowed to the Hospitaler. "God save and keep you, Bonsier."

"And you," Rainaut said automatically, hardly able to think for the turmoil within him.

Olivia took the vellum sheets and looked them over. "Yes, they are all here. Thank you, Alfaze, for bringing them." She paused. "Have refreshments been prepared for my guest?"

"You have only to send for them, mistress," said Alfaze.

"Will you give the order for me, when you leave?" She knew that Alfaze wanted to guard her, and with another man she would have welcomed his intrusion. The Hospitaler had surprised her and she wanted more time with him. "In fact, I wish you to bring the refreshments yourself." She looked toward Rainaut. "Would that suit you?"

"You… whatever suits you," Rainaut said in confusion.

"That will give us a little more time to review the documents I have prepared. If you can read—" She did not know how best to frame the question, and left it open for him.

"I have some skill at letters," he said. "But I am no scholar." It had never troubled him until now; faced with so captivating a woman, he longed to match her learning.

"Then review these"—she handed him the vellum sheets—"and tell me what more is needed to satisfy the Court of Bourgesses."

Rainaut was glad for the diversion of puzzling out the lists in the inventories. It gave him a respite from her tantalizing nearness. Mercy of Christ, he asked himself, what is happening? What sorcery does this Roman woman possess that she disturbs me in this way? His eyes moved down the page, though he made sense of little of it. One line—the number of holy ornaments she was donating to various churches and chapels—he read four times without understanding it, though he knew the words and what they meant. I am like a child, he thought. I am like a blind man newly given sight. In a strange voice he said, "They appear sufficient to me."

"And what am I to do?" Olivia asked, some of her earlier exasperation returning.

"Let me speak for you. It is strange that the Court of Bourgesses should withhold permission." He attempted to speak properly, with correct respect and deference, but he could not manage it. "I will do everything I can, Bondama."

"Thank you, Bonsier," said Olivia, waving Alfaze away. "Return with refreshments," she said over her shoulder as the eunuch left her alone with Rainaut once more.

"I will do everything I can," he repeated more forcefully.

Olivia watched him, feeling the intensity of his eyes as if she stood near a fire. "Free me?" She had said the words before she realized she spoke. With a quick, dismissing motion of her hand, she continued. "No; that isn't your burden to take up. If you will assist me, I will be thankful and—"

"I would take any burden you give me and count myself privileged beyond dreams," Rainaut said impulsively. "It is no burden to fight your cause, Bondama."

For an instant, Olivia missed Niklos so intensely that the effect was a pain. "You… you surprise me, Sier Valence," she said quietly, and it was no less than the truth. "I pray you will never have cause to regret those feelings."

"It would not be possible," said Rainaut with increased emotion. As every knight his age knew, Rainaut had been told that in the presence of the beloved it was proper to become faint. Until that day, he had considered such things to be troubadors' nonsense. He looked toward the shuttered window where the narrow bands of rose-colored light came in as the lowering sun at last gained access to the room. Where the brightness cut the scented gloom, the atmosphere seemed about to burst into flame. "I must leave soon," he said, his voice remote as he tried to secure some distance from Olivia's presence.

"There are refreshments being brought for you," Olivia said politely, knowing better than to press him while he was still so visibly confused. "You will offend my cook if you refuse them."

Rainaut looked toward her again, making himself appear at ease, hoping her attraction would lessen; it did not. "I want never to give you the least offense." It was said without emotion, as if he were speaking the words he had been ordered to speak, not the conviction of his heart. "But I must not stay much longer. We Hospitalers have duties and devotions." It was an excuse, and an insignificant one, if he allowed himself to think about it. "I will come again, in a few days, if you will permit."

"Since you are taking up my cause," said Olivia, "I rely on you to keep me apprised of what has happened." She brushed the gauze back from her face as if it was a tendril of hair. "You have a better knowledge of how I might proceed than I do; I'm aware of that. So. What can I do to help you? You say you will aid me; what am I to do to assist you?"

"You have done so much already." He said the words angrily, but there was no anger in his face or the lines of his body. He looked away from her again, once more fascinated by the glowing fingers of light.

"Unsuccessfully," she appended. "Sier Valence," she said a short while later, "I meant what I told you, that I feel I am a prisoner here. No one yearns more for release than I do. No one is more willing to—"

Rainaut still did not look at her. "I will arrange escort, I will see that you are given permission to leave, I will accompany you, by land or water, and I will stay with you until you are safely arrived in Roma. On my life's blood." He reached out blindly, his hand brushing her samite bliaud before catching her wrist. "Listen to me." He turned toward her as inexorably as a lodestone turns north. "You have a right to this: I give you my pledge. On my honor, on my sword, on my life, that I am your true knight; only God is a greater sovereign than you are to me." What had come over him? he wondered as he offered this vow. What had happened, that he made such a vow? What had possessed him? The idea of possession hovered in his mind, malignant as a vulture. Did this Roman widow have command of magical powers that perverted his knightly purpose to her own ends? The question banished his doubts. Olivia had asked nothing of him—he had offered service, had wanted to give her service. He admitted to himself that if she had refused his service, it would have been the crudest wound he would ever take, worse than his knowledge of his own cowardice.

"You do not need to do this, Sier Valence," Olivia said as his grip tightened on her wrist. "I do not ask this of you."

He stared into her eyes. "You know of my shame, of the weakness in me. You have not dismissed me, or castigated me, although if you had done either, you would be blameless for it. I make no excuse for… If I am to expiate this failing, then I… I cannot abjure my oath. This is not your doing. I give you my fealty willingly. If you refuse, then—" He released his hold on her.

"I fear that without your help, I will be here forever." She shuddered as she said the last, trying to imagine what all the years she had lived would be to her had she passed them within the walls of this house.

"No; I will arrange your passage as soon as possible." He brought her hand to his lips, thinking that Joivita would be a poor substitute now for his appetites. Even so oblique a recognition of his passion shamed him. He let go of her hand and moved away from her. "It is said that all knights, to be true knights, must serve ideal as well as worldly goals. From my youth I was told that without a lady for…" He did not finish; instead he continued in a different tone, "I thought that it would be better to serve Heaven and the King's Grace. But I did not know the wisdom of my teachers. It is better to have a lady. My King's mother said so, years ago, and she has always been accounted wiser than most women."

Olivia knew something of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and would have held her tongue, but she saw that Rainaut was looking at her once more, waiting for what she would say. "I have heard that she is devoted to her son Richard." It was a cautious comment, one that seemed safe.

"And Henry liked John, or so they say," Rainaut remarked. "She put her hopes in Richard when her husband failed her."

It was difficult for Olivia not to ask "Which husband," but she restrained herself. "If Richard is coming on Crusade, what of his mother? Will she follow him, do you think?"

"She has said she will," Rainaut said, glad for the respite such impersonal subjects gave. "But she is not young, and France longs to claim the Plantagenet lands for their own, leaving only the English Islands to Richard and his heirs."

"Richard has yet to—" Olivia stopped.

"I have heard he is to marry. His mother has urged it, since Richard will not have Alais; he will not take his father's leavings, he says. So there must be another, and Queen Eleanor is determined that the line will be preserved. Richard must have a Queen: that is the greatest protection for England. Eleanor will preserve her son's heritage. If Richard is married and his throne assured, his mother may remain to guard the kingdom."

"And you, Sier Valence? You come from… where is Saint-Prosperus-lo-Boys?"

"In Aunis, a day's ride from Niort." He smiled faintly. "Our family has a fortified holding there, not quite a castle. It is very old."

"And your family?" Olivia asked with interest. "What of them? Are they as old as your not-quite-castle?"

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