Crusader's Torch Page 16

Joivita watched him go, sighing as she heard the front door of her little house slam closed. She leaned back, propping herself on her elbows, and clicked her tongue several times in quiet irritation. More than ever she was determined to bring Sier Valence Rainaut under her heel, and through him to reach Reis Richard Coer de Leon. What better means, she told herself, than through the King's vassal knight who was completely in her thrall.

A discreet knock at her door interrupted her thoughts.

"A moment," she called out, neither surprised nor confused. When she sat up, she had abandoned her sensual airs and had much more the look of an expert thief, which her father was. She pulled a barbaresque robe around her shoulders and said, "Enter, Meniques."

The man who came through the door was her cousin, and like Joivita, had been born at Narbonne. He was fifteen years her senior and had not spent those years well: his nose had been struck off and he was missing three fingers on his right hand. "Was it a good night, little cousin?"

She shrugged. "It was not bad."

"He excites you, this one, doesn't he?" Meniques asked with a knowing look.

"What he is excites me," said Joivita shortly. "He is no mere Templar, he's with the Hospitalers, and he's a vassal of Richard's."

"Poor fellow, if he gets too close to his king," said Meniques with a very unpleasant chuckle. "Someone as handsome as that would not be able to escape the king's… favor." The last word was so salacious that Joivita flushed.

"That has nothing to do with us," she snapped, unwilling to hear anyone speak so crudely of Richard Coer de Leon. "I have learned a little from Sier Valence, as we agreed."

"And the pilgrims? What of them?" Meniques' manner changed abruptly, now all business. "How many and how guarded?"

"I don't know the number. They're Franconians, all cripples or disfigured, and two are knights on foot, for protection as for penance. The Hospitalers will accompany them for one day and then return." She looked speculatively at Meniques. "Worth the picking?"

"It's hard to say," Meniques answered. "Possibly. Franconians. All disfigured or crippled. That's not promising. Nothing much for a slave market and… what about ransom?" This last was the only idea that Meniques could salvage from the unpromising news.

"So far as I know none of them are worth much," said Joivita, secretly glad that this was the case, for it did not suit her plans to have Rainaut hurt or killed in a skirmish before she had achieved her purpose.

"But it's possible?" Meniques pursued.

"I suppose so. But if that was the case, there would be a greater escort. What well-born pilgrim would want to be in the company of the disfigured or knights on foot?" It was a sensible question, and Meniques considered it carefully.

"Well, we will have to delay, then. Probably just as well. With the new Crusade, there's no telling how much ransom we can collect on knights. I'll need more men with me if we're going to try that, but—" He reached out and patted Joivita's arm in a proprietary way. "You're doing very well, little cousin."

Joivita could feel the familiar tightness in her gut at Meniques' touch and told herself that she had long since passed the place where she had to be afraid of him any longer. When she was ten and had no means to fight him, she was entitled to fear, but no longer. Now she knew his weaknesses and would use them against him. "I am doing better than you could dream," she corrected him haughtily.

"Are you?" He did not move his hand.

"And my body is not for the likes of you any longer," she insisted with hauteur. "You may go back to your slaves and camp followers."

"Why should I do that, when you're here?" he asked, starting to push her shoulder.

"Because," she said very distinctly, "if you touch me when I do not demand it of you, I will never again tell you what I have learned from my lovers. I will lie to you and betray you and I will laugh when they cut off your hand and your ears. I will say that you are a blasphemer and they will peel the skin off your feet and pour salt on the meat for goats to lick." She laughed as Meniques turned pale. "And you dare not punish me. I am not a whore, I am a courtesan and my lovers would not let my death go unavenged."

"Are you so certain?" Meniques had turned ugly but beneath his belligerence there was fear. "What if I took you with me now, what then?"

"My slaves would kill you," she said with a certainty she did not feel. "And they would take you to the Court of Bourgesses for murder. You would be flayed alive then." She crossed her arms and waited for her cousin to step back.

Slowly, angrily, he did. "I curse the day I had your maidenhead," he said.

She responded with great sweetness. "Dear cousin, so do I."

* * *

Text of a letter from Sanct' Germain Franciscus in Karakhorum to Olivia in Alexandria, sent eight years ago; written in archaic Latin.

Greetings to my dearest Olivia, from one of the most forsaken places on the earth. It reflects my present humor. Karakhorum is said to be a city, but it is more of a Mongol camp with walls. Why is it that the more desolate and unaccomplished a place is, the grander the titles are that are heaped on it?

Luckily I will be leaving here in two days, bound at last for Lo-Yang, where your letters will find me eventually if you will entrust them to cloth merchants bound along the Old Silk Road. Rogerian has found a reliable caravan going to the old capital and they have agreed—at an enormous fee—to permit the two of us to ride with them.

I know your opinions of my actions. You made them very clear in your last letter. But surely even you can see that the world is changing, and that the continued clash of Christianity and Islam has only served to make each side more zealous and unyielding. There is precious little room for reason or moderation now, and you will not convince me that the skirmishes will not continue until once again there is war, presented in the more flattering guise of Crusading.

That madness is contagious, Olivia. Remember what happened to those of our blood who died in a flaming barn. Neither you nor I would escape their fate if we were revealed for what we are. I am sick of the waste and the treachery. When I thought, in our trek over the desert, that at last I would die the true death, I was not troubled; in fact, I was relieved that only the relentless sun would claim me, and not the axe or the sword or the fire.

As you see, I survived. And yet, aside from the loss of you, there was little binding me here. I could not have withstood it all, but for you. Not even the few scattered remnants of our blood could hold to life as you did. Perhaps I will have the respite I seek in Lo-Yang. You need not remind me that I will be a stranger there—I am always a stranger everywhere.

This is much longer than I intended, and I will not compound my fault. If this reaches you, answer me when it is safe for you to write. In this hopeless world, my treasured friend, you give me hope.

Sanct' Germain

his seal, the eclipse

By my own hand on the 14th or 15th day of April in the Christian year 1182.

- 9 -

As he gazed at the roughly carved crucifix, it seemed to Fraire Herchambaut that the Body of Christ moved, and that for an instant the wood was not wood at all, but bleeding flesh. He made the Sign of the Cross and whispered a prayer that was not part of his devotions. Now he could not recall the numbers of the Hosts of God, or their designations and ranks. He squinted, his eyes stinging from sweat, and tried to resume his orisons, his voice croaking out the words by rote, all sense or true understanding faded from his mind.

It was mid-afternoon before someone came to the chapel and found Fraire Herchambaut lying on the floor, nearly unconscious, fever giving his grimy features the ruddiness of false health. The page, coming from the Templars, blessed himself and hurried away, shouting that the monk had fainted from plague.

By sunset, two monks from the Hospital of Saint Lazarus had come and pronounced Fraire Herchambaut clean, having no taint of leprosy about him; they could not care for him, for their work was only with those most unfortunate souls afflicted with the disease that visited corruption on the body before death claimed it.

The Knights Hospitaler had no room for Fraire Herchambaut, for their hospital was already filled with pilgrims suffering from almost every malady known in the Holy Land.

"We cannot return him to his chapel," said the senior infirmarist to his assistants. "Left to his own devices, he will die for lack of care. There is no one who—"

"He is a monk," one of the assistants pointed out. "He has placed his life in God's Hands, and—"

"That is enough," said the senior infirmarist as he glared at the young man in the stained white habit with the black cross on the sleeves. "You have your task, which is the care of those Christians suffering in the body. This monk prays for those who are suffering in the soul. It would be a great failure if we were to neglect him." He continued to scowl.

"He has no other Cistercians to tend his chapel," said their page, a twelve-year-old boy from Ravenna. "He maintained it by himself, and provided comfort to those few who sought him out."

The senior infirmarist shook his head. "A bad business." He turned back to the pallet where Fraire Herchambaut lay, not quite asleep, fretting and muttering. "There is no room here."

"There are Islamites who—" one of the others suggested, but was cut off at once.

"What are we that we would send our monks to the followers of Islam, whose soldiers are massing now to fight our Christian chivalry?" the senior infirmarist demanded, not at all pleased with the question that was almost asked.

"What of the others? What of those who came to him?" This was one of the older infirmarists, a carter's son from Paris.

"He's a monk, not a priest," one of the others scoffed. "Who came to him, except poor travelers?"

"There were a few who…" the page began, then hesi-tated. "The Roman widow knows him. She might be willing to pay for his care."

"The Roman widow?" repeated the senior infirmarist. "What woman is this?"

"The one who lives near the rug-merchants' market, the one with the palinquin with sea-colored hangings," said the page. "She is over thirty, they say, and was married to a Roman noble older than she."

"I know nothing of her," said the senior infirmarist. "I ought to speak to one of our superiors." Like all infirmarists, he was a lay brother, not bound by the more stringent vows of the knights of the Order. "To release a sick man to the care of a widow—" He shook his head.

"Who may not have him in any case," said the page. "Still, she knows who he is. That may mean…" The movements of his hands ended his thoughts.

By morning, Fraire Herchambaut was delirious, his words rambling and his fervid eyes glazed. He tossed on the narrow pallet in the infirmary hall where he had lain all the night, unaware of where he was or how ill he had become.

"Has the widow been approached?" asked the aloof Premonstratensian who supervised the chapel. "We cannot permit Fraire Herchambaut to remain here."

"Word was sent shortly after dawn," said the senior infirmarist. "There is no answer yet."

The Premonstratensian stared at the suffering monk. "At least he is not a leper."

"There is no room in the Hospital of Saint Lazarus," said the senior infirmarist. "I was warned last week when those three pilgrims were discovered to be lepers." He blessed himself. "I would embrace any affliction, even the bite of a mad dog, rather than leprosy." He saw the expression in the Premonstratensian's eyes. "Truly, I would. I know it is wrong of me, for Our Lord washed a leper clean, but—"

The Premonstratensian sighed. "Whatever the cause, death comes to all of us, and for those who have lived in God, they will live again, as the others will be lost to Hell for eternity." He looked down once more at Fraire Herchambaut. "Has he been able to take water?"

"He hasn't been given any. You see the state he is in." The senior infirmarist cleared his throat. "Whoever cares for him, he will not need help long, not with his condition. Two, perhaps three days, and he will stand at the Mercy Seat."

The Premonstratensian nodded. "We are always in the Hands of God." He hid his hands in his sleeves and moved around the pitiful figure of Fraire Herchambaut on his way to the main infirmary.

By mid-morning, Alfaze presented himself at the Hospitalers' infirmary along with a scribe from the Court of Bourgesses. On the orders of his mistress, he went in search of Sier Valence Rainaut, carrying a formal statement from Olivia declaring that she would take Fraire Herchambaut into her house as an act of charity through ministering to those diseased.

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