Crusader's Torch Page 21

He took this, more careful of not touching her than avoiding the thorns. "You're severe. You do not comprehend the great purpose that carries us on."

"I understand greed and anger and covetousness," she said. "And I understand fear. What else need I comprehend, with war coming?"

He regarded her narrowly. "You have heard tales, and they have frightened you."

"No. It isn't my fear I meant. I've seen so much in the last—" She had almost said she was a thousand years old. "I'm old enough to have seen war before," she amended.

"You mean the Islamites in Alexandria," said Rainaut, stopping while he spoke, then strolling up to her. "That was nothing, Bondama. You are right to fear the Islamites, but in regard to Christian knights, it is not important."

"Not important?" she repeated as her thoughts ranged back through the centuries, her breath quickening at the memories his casual dismissal stirred.

"It is one thing when men battle for loot or favor, but that is not why we are prepared for war. The Crusaders fight for our faith, for our God, against the enemies of our God, for the salvation of our souls and the preservation of our faith." He took a deep breath, his blue eyes growing hot as his emotions became stronger. Purpose showed in the line of his stance and the tone of his words. "There is the strength of Angels in our arms."

"Really?" Olivia turned to him, a bitterness she thought she had forgot filling her. "Because you are doing the Pope's bidding, you think arrows will not penetrate your mail? You think that your wounds will not bleed? Or mortify? Prayers will not keep you whole, Sier Valence. An Islamite sword cuts as deeply as a Christian one."

Taken aback at her outburst, Rainaut stared at her. "What do you mean?" he demanded of her at last.

"I mean that war is a waste: of men, of countries, of peoples, of everything worthwhile and pleasant. To fight against attack is one thing, but to court disaster, to invite the depredations of war"—she raised her fists—"is more futile than feeding a starving man tainted meat."

Rainaut glowered at her. "You say that taking the cause of Christ is futile?"

"If it leads to slaughter, yes, I do," she said, her chin up, her face set. "Any cause that leads to destruction is futile. And if that makes me despicable in your eyes, Sier Valence, then you must despise me; I will not change my mind to suit you—especially to suit you."

Everything Rainaut had been taught said that he should leave her now, that he should know himself blessed to be free of her. He could turn away and feel no shame, no regret. He could then confess and be purged of his love for her. He put his hands on her shoulders. "I cannot despise you, Bondama, though I lose my soul for it."

She swallowed hard, wishing, as she had so many times before, that she could weep. Slowly she reached up and kissed him once, lightly. "I don't ask your soul of you, Sier Valence."

"You have it already," he said, deliberately moving away from her, feeling his resistance weakening. As he reached for one of her trailing sleeves to kiss, he said, "I am your devoted servant for all my life; I swear that on my sword." He had wrapped his other hand around the hilt of his sword, and now he started to draw it.

"I will take your word for it, Sier Valence," said Olivia. He was the most infuriating man, she decided, offering her his soul and his love, but not his passion or his body, because his love and reverence for her were too great to sully her. She indicated one of two low benches near a bed of sweet herbs. "So you will escort me for as far as your Order will permit you to go."

"Yes," he said. He came to the second bench and lifted one foot onto the bench, resting his elbow on his knee. "And I will pray for God to forgive me each day I am in your company, for each day I am with you, I am more your servant than His."

"But you spend your nights with a courtesan," said Olivia.

"Because she is a courtesan and you are not," Rainaut told her. "You may not hold your honor in high esteem, but I do."

Olivia shook her head. "Never mind. You will not convince me, and I will not convince you." She had resisted the urge to appear to him as a dream and rouse him that way; such encounters had sustained her for years. But with Rainaut she continued to hesitate, for fear of his repugnance, or something worse than repugnance. Her manner was deceptively calm; she had learned long ago to mask her feelings, and now she wanted to conceal her longing and her doubt from Rainaut. "Ithuriel Dar's ship has been taken over by the Teutonic Hospitalers."

Rainaut bristled at the mention of the rival Hospitaler Order. "We will find passage at Sidon."

"And if the Crusaders get there first, what then?" She reached over and fingered a drooping massey stalk, watching the pale pink blossoms tremble at her touch.

"We will go to another port," he said, but with less confidence than before. "You have my word that you will not be abandoned and without care for as long as there is breath in my body."

"Of course." She looked up at him, her decision made, though she had never truly doubted she would leave Tyre. "Sier Valence, since you are determined, find out when we will be able to secure room in a ship returning to Italy. I will send my belongings by sea—that is permissible, since crates of possessions do not eat or require slaves to care for them—as soon as possible, if you will…" She let her words trail off as her deception became more difficult.

He reached out and let the backs of his fingers brush against her hair. "I will arrange our travel," he said.

"Thank you." She sat very still.

"Olivia," he said in a low voice, "if you knew how much you tempted me."

"Not enough, apparently," she said quietly.

"If I were free, Olivia, and had the permission of my liege, I would find your relatives and I would haunt them day and night, I would do all in my power to gain their approval, and if they refused, I would persevere until they were convinced." He had taken one fine tendril of hair between thumb and forefinger and now he rubbed it absently. "No matter what relatives you have, I would persuade them."

"I have only… only one blood relative currently living," she said, a faint, sad frown drawing a line between her brows. "And he is far away."

"That would mean nothing," Rainaut promised her. "I would seek him out and I would gain his permission. He would not refuse me if he is a man of reason."

"But you aren't free, are you?" Her face showed more pain than she realized, and she was surprised at the response she evoked.

"Olivia," whispered Rainaut, pulling her to her feet and into his arms.

"What is the point?" she murmured as his lips grazed her cheek. "Why do you do this, when you will not do more? Valence?" What would he do, she wondered, if he knew her for what she was? He could not accept her as a widow; what would he do if he ever learned the rest? "It is no kindness to do this, to wake my desires and my hopes, and then to refuse me anything more than these hints. And it torments you as much as it does me."

"It is torment," he said, still keeping hold of her. "For both of us."

They stood together in silence, then Olivia sighed. "Valence, you were the one who said that it will not be an easy thing to travel with me. You have told me that being in my company is hard. Yet you do this, which makes it more difficult still." She looked at him, into his bright blue eyes, saying, "You tell me that you must honor your oaths, and I accept that. You tell me that you esteem me, and I almost accept that. But then you spout the nonsense of troubadors. Those tales are not for men and women who breathe, they are for the wraiths conjured up by poets. I am no wraith, and my needs quicken as yours do."

"You are lonely. It is your loneliness that speaks," he said, his words coming unsteadily.

"Yes," she exclaimed. "Yes, I am lonely, and never more so than when I am with you, when I can sense your feelings and know my own, and still do nothing." With an effort she moved away from him. "Perhaps you are right," she said in a changed, subdued tone. "Perhaps it is too difficult for us to travel together and I ought to request other escort, to spare us both."

"It isn't possible," he said sharply, having no idea if it was or not. "You have been assigned my escort, and I and my companion knight will accompany you as far as Rhodes, at least."

Olivia shook her head. "Assuming we get there."

"It will be arranged," Rainaut said firmly. "I will find a way to see your goods are shipped and—"

"Not quite all my goods," she interrupted. "There are a few things that are… essential to me, and I will take those with me." They would include two chests filled with her native earth, but she would not mention that.

"Naturally. Women of breeding are not expected to travel like serfs or penitents," he said, doing his best to maintain the distance between them. "You are not to think that you will have to be a pilgrim unless that is what you wish."

"I've seen enough pilgrims to last me… a lifetime." A faint amusement lit her hazel eyes. "Escort and one slave should be sufficient; I will supply my own horses."

"And wagon?" asked Rainaut.

"If I must," Olivia capitulated. "I would rather ride. You know that I can."

"Yes," Rainaut said slowly. "But it is not fitting for a woman of your rank to go about on horseback."

"Why the devil not?" Olivia demanded of the air. "The Queen of England does."

"The Queen of England is a law unto herself," said Rainaut awkwardly. "Admirable and irresponsible at once, and unlike any woman in the world."

"A great tribute, Bonsier, coming from you," Olivia said with an ironic lift to her brows. "Or is it that she is mother of your Reis Richard, and that puts her beyond criticism?"

"You are playing with me," Rainaut accused. "You are mocking—"

"Playing I own," Olivia said, stopping him. "But much as I might wish to, I will not mock you, Sier Valence. I might say things to you in anger that are cutting, but not mocking. I hope you will believe that, for it is true."

He looked at her in hungry silence. "I believe you," he told her at last, and the silence between them returned.

Finally Olivia started toward the arched doorway leading back into her house. "There is much to do, Sier Valence, if I am actually to leave this place. I must set my slaves to work and prepare my things for shipping."

Rainaut followed her. "You puzzle me, Bondama."

The shadow of the building fell across them, providing a little relief from the enormous heat; Olivia paused in this twilight and looked back at Rainaut. "Why is that?"

"There are many reasons," he said, striving for a lightness that might dispel the intensity of their nearness. "What puzzles me now is how you accommodate the shifts in your fortunes. You speak of sending your goods as easily as you might order meat from the butcher."

"In this world, Sier Valence, we must learn to accommodate or we die," she said, going into her house as she spoke.

"But for most, the accommodation is a great burden; for you it seems it is not." He noticed the scent of cinnamon and cloves on the air and thought of the bland fare waiting for him at the chapter house.

"I have had practice," Olivia said, and before he could question her further, she went on, "As soon as you have secured room for my goods, I will want to know of it. I have already provided inventories of what is to go. If you can get me the information about the ship's capacity, I will see that the goods are packed to suit the hold."

Rainaut bowed slightly. "You have only to wish it, Bondama, and it is done." He reached the end of the hall and entered the vestibule. "I will call upon you when I have news or information."

"You needn't wait that long, if you would rather not," Olivia said impulsively, then shrugged. As much as she wanted to see him, she dreaded their being together for the irresolution between them. "Do as you think best, Sier Valence. I do have tasks to keep me busy, and there are affairs to be settled still before we depart. If there are problems or I have questions, I will send one of my slaves to you. If not, then—" She managed a world-weary smile for him.

His expression altered a little, becoming more worried. "About your traveling, your plans: you have not told me yet how you intend to get from Rhodes or Cyprus to Roma, if I cannot escort you." He steeled himself against the hurt he felt at thinking of their parting.

"As you have told me yourself, something will be arranged. There are other escorts, I assume, and ships to be hired. I have learned to improvise, Bonsier." She turned toward him. "It would be more pleasant if we could share each other's company after Rhodes or Cyprus." Perhaps then, she added to herself, something would be settled with them.

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