Crusader's Torch Page 17

"I knew nothing of this," said Rainaut when he had taken the time to look over the statement. "She is trying to leave Tyre. We are arranging it." He stared at Alfaze as if the slave would provide him an answer.

"She said the monk has aided her," Alfaze said in his high voice. "So long as she remains in Tyre, she intends to offer the protection of her house to the Cistercian Brother for as long as he requires it." He spoke precisely as Olivia had instructed him, but he was not prepared for the heat of Rainaut's response.

"What is the matter with her?" he shouted, making the narthex of the Hospitalers' church ring and the worshippers within look around in vexation. Uncaring and undismayed he went on, "What is her purpose? And do not tell me that it is charity, for she could practice that any way she pleased. She already has donated a third of her goods to the use of religious Orders and Houses; there is no doubt of her piety or sincerity. Why this?"

"She did not tell me, Bonsier," Alfaze said, making his voice as soft as possible as if it would quiet Rainaut's.

"Why tell a slave?" Rainaut asked of the air. "But she will tell me, by all the Saints in the calendar." He started past Alfaze, but turned back. "Where is she?"

"She awaits at her house. She is preparing to receive the monk." He looked down at his feet. "I must do what my mistress orders me to do," Alfaze apologized to Rainaut indirectly.

"Certainly," Rainaut said. "But I will speak with her at once." He stormed out of the church and along the crowded street toward the funda. His anger was so intense that he barely noticed the heat of the sun.

Two Egyptian slaves opened the door to Rainaut when he pounded on the door, and they stood silently aside as the Hospitaler thundered into the vestibule.

"Bondama Clemens!" he bellowed.

Olivia appeared at the end of the central hall. "Sier Valence," she said as she came toward him, her shadow-colored linen bliaud soft and ungirdled so that it swirled around her like smoke. "I had not thought to see you."

"No, I suppose not," he said, face thrust forward.

She came up to him. "Is there more trouble?"

"How can you ask that, after what you have done?" he shouted. "What possessed you?"

The two Egyptian slaves had not left their places by the door; they watched their mistress with her unexpected visitor, ready to act at her signal.

"What are you saying?" Olivia asked between amusement and annoyance. "Why are you here, yelling at me?"

He slapped his thighs hard with his hands. "Never mind this pretense, woman. Tell me why you have"—his manner changed abruptly as he met her hazel eyes with his blue ones—"why have you said you would take the Cistercian into your house? The man is dying, Bondama. He is sick. He has a fever and he sweats like a pig." In his concern he touched her arm.

"I am not afraid," said Olivia softly. "But I am… I am grateful that you are, for my sake." She wished she knew him better, understood him better so that she could say more to him.

"If you took his sickness, I…" He shook his head slowly.

"I will not take his sickness, on my blood I will not." Her faint smile was so distant and sad that Rainaut wrapped his arms around her before he thought of the consequences of his act.

"Listen to me," he whispered fiercely to the soft cascade of her hair. "Listen to me, Olivia. Fraire Herchambaut has the flux. He is mad with fever. Nothing can save him now but God." His arms tightened. "You must not go near him. Don't endanger yourself for one who is already a dead man."

She slipped her arms around his waist, above the studded belt that held his sword-and-scabbard. "I am not afraid," she said simply.

"I know that," he muttered. "The Virgin's Tits! No one doubts your courage. I pray I had one half your courage." He drew her more tightly against him. "If anything should happen to you, Bondama, it would be the end of what little honor I have left."

Olivia leaned her head against his shoulder, her face to his neck. "Valence, listen to me," she said in a still, quiet voice, "I will take no harm from Fraire Herchambaut. I have seen his fever before." In the centuries since her death, she had witnessed more epidemics than she could remember, or wanted to. "I will not take it from Fraire Herchambaut, as those who have had the Little Pox do not take the Great Pox."

"But—" His right hand was caught in her hair, the strands falling, glistening, through his fingers like skeins of silk.

"The poor man is in his greatest need and there is no one to help him. It is a little thing for me to do, where others would have to risk much more." It was pleasant to be held this way, to lean close to him, feeling his strength and affection in his embrace. "I worry more for you than you have cause to worry for me."

The Egyptian slaves exchanged glances as they remained rigidly and correctly silent.

"If you are lying to me," Rainaut said at last, his tone growing rough with emotion, "I swear by Christ's Nails that I will strangle you."

Olivia chuckled once. "If I take fever, I won't notice."

"It is no laughing matter," Rainaut protested, drawing back from her just far enough to be able to look into her eyes. "Don't mock, Olivia, I beg you."

Her response was strangely melancholy. "I do not mock, Valence." She touched his face with the tips of her fingers. "I want only to convince you there is nothing to fear. I will not become ill from caring for Fraire Herchambaut."

''You have a sign from God, then?" he challenged her, his voice still low, his eyes volcanic.

"Something of the sort," she replied, giving herself the luxury of leaning against him once more. It had been so long since she had been more than a passionate dream to a man: she reminded herself that it was proper for a widow to be filled with ambivalence, but—

"Bondama?" Rainaut said, sensing her turmoil.

"I am… moved, Sier Valence," Olivia said, in proper form once more. Unwillingly she stepped back from him, knowing that to stay in his arms would bring him shame. "And I wish with all my heart you would permit me to… to express—"

Rainaut's face darkened. "It is not mete." He moved away from her. "Nothing I have done is mete. You are not some careless woman who—" When he looked at her, his eyes were supplicants in his hardened face.

"You are not a careless man," she said simply. "That you came here out of… of compassion, tells me you are not a careless man." She read self-accusation in his expression now, and she wanted to shout at him as he had at her. What absurdity of honor had he traduced now? she wondered. As a Hospitaler, he would have to confess his sins like a monk or a priest, and he would blame himself for the very thing that Olivia treasured most in him. She was tempted to box his ears or pour ajar of wine over his head. How dare he! she railed in her thoughts. How dare he awaken all her longings, all the denied joys she had been able to set aside for years and years! How dare he show her a rapture he would not let her have!

Rainaut was staring at her. "What is it?" he asked.

She caught her lower lip in her teeth before she answered. "I am… I am thinking about my household," she lied. "You have reminded me that they are not safe from Fraire Herchambaut's fever." If only Niklos were here, she thought. Between the two of them they could care for Fraire Herchambaut and neither of them would be in danger. As it was, she would have to expose one of her slaves to the disease.

His expression lightened. "Have you changed your mind?"

"No." She considered. "But I will seek out one of the penitent pilgrims. Surely among them there is one who would be willing to help me." His disappointment was so plain that she smiled at last, though it brought her a deep, hidden pain. "Or is that not permissible?"

"It is permissible," he said slowly. "But many of those pilgrims are…" His words trailed off and he wandered toward the larger of her two reception rooms. "I will arrange it, if that is your wish," he heard himself say in a tone he did not recognize.

"Thank you," she said, coming after him once she dismissed her Egyptian slaves. "There will be a place made for the penitent."

"Most of them do not bathe," he said after a moment.

"How fastidious," she remarked. "I wouldn't have thought anyone noticed."

"Lice are holy for pilgrims," Rainaut said distantly. He hoped she did not know how disastrously she stirred him. He had been unwise to hold her, to put his hands on her, for now his desire had scope and substance. "Some of my Order bathe rarely."

"But you are not one of them," said Olivia, watching him closely although she appeared to be paying little attention. "Why is that?"

He laughed. "There was an old Roman camp on my family's lands. The baths could still be made to work. My father's apothecary had a theory that bathing…" His memories were suddenly very present. "He said that those who bathe had fewer boils and eruptions of the skin. He said that bathing prevented canker and… and leprosy." His attempt at derisive laughter did not succeed. "He was a mad old man."

"But you bathed," said Olivia.

"Yes, and pray for my sins now." He turned to look at her, hoping he had enough control not to stare or hunger for her. "I did not mean you any disrespect."

"You showed me none," she said. Had he been nearer she would have reached out for his hand, but he kept a good distance between them so that only their eyes met.

He said nothing for a short while, then told her, "Your eunuch, Alfaze, will be bringing Fraire Herchambaut here. I will find you a penitent, one that has some skill with caring for the sick."

"Why don't you sit down, Sier Valence?" she offered.

"No." He rubbed his fist into his palm. "No, I must not stay. I have… I have duties and…" Whatever else he was going to say faded from his mind as he looked at her. "If I were… other than I am, I would—"

"I don't object to what you are, Sier Valence," Olivia put in quickly. "If that is your question."

"I—no." He paced restlessly, moving away from her and approaching her as he spoke. "You are Roman. You do not understand my position."

"No, I don't, though what Roman has to do with it, I can't fathom." She waited while he wandered a little closer to her. "I don't think you could explain it to me, in any case."

"Possibly not," he said, not paying much attention. "You don't have to…" He stared at how her hair shone, at the tendrils that curved beside her ear. When he had touched it, the texture had been finer than anything he could remember.

Olivia returned his look. "One day, perhaps, you will explain it to me, when it doesn't matter to you as much."

"Honor must always matter," he said automatically.

"I suppose so," she said in a thoughtful voice. "But who is to decide what—Yes?" This last was to one of her Egyptian slaves who had appeared in the doorway.

"Alfaze has returned. They are bringing the monk," he said; if he saw Rainaut, he gave no sign of it.

"I must go," Rainaut said at once, starting out of the room.

"Not just at once," Olivia told him. "Let me have a little of your time, please." It was not so sharp a request that it sounded like an order, and for that reason alone, he stopped.

"What may I do for you, Bondama?" He retreated behind polite address, hoping that he would not suffer another lapse while he was in her company; his chagrin was great enough as it was.

"I have prepared one of the slave's rooms—I have six empty now—for Fraire Herchambaut. I want to be certain that it will suit, and to know which of the other rooms ought to be prepared for the penitent." She might have been discussing menus for all the emotion she revealed.

"Certainly, if you consider anything I say of value." He could have cursed himself as soon as he spoke the words. "It is my honor to assist and advise you."

Olivia had risen and now led the way to the slaves' quarters. "I have reduced my household, you know, in preparation for my departure. I still cling to the hope that I will be permitted to leave."

He nodded, watching how she moved. "Permission will be granted."

"If I knew who to bribe, I would do it, and gladly," she continued as they passed through the kitchen and down a side corridor away from the stables. "I have sold off all but two of my horses, and I have kept only nine slaves. I have fifed writs of manumission for them upon my departure. With a small grant to aid them in getting on in the world."

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