Crusader's Torch Page 26

"No man turns an honest widow to a whore." Rainaut reached for the dagger at his belt and started to draw it from the sheath. "And well you know that."

De Jountuil shook his head. "She's yours for the asking. If you do not believe me, then wait until you catch her in the Islamite's arms." This time as Rainaut came toward him, de Jountuil held up his hands. "Peace, Rainaut. I have no quarrel with you. I only wish to let you see the nature of the widow we are protecting. If I am in error, then I will ask her Christian forgiveness." His smile was slight and cynical. "Is that enough for you, or must I prepare to open a vein?"

"Suicide is a sin against the Holy Spirit," said Rainaut quietly.

"So it is. I am very sure of myself, Rainaut. I know what I have seen." He bent to pick up his sword again. "Shall we continue practice?" It was a deliberate jibe, expertly delivered and timed. "Sier Valence?"

"Yes," Rainaut said through his teeth, going to fetch his sword. "And then we must tend to our horses."

"Twice a day, every day," de Jountuil said automatically. "By Rule of Order. For the sake of a Maltese Cross, we become stablehands and grooms."

"For the sake of pilgrims and the honor of God," Rainaut corrected him. He slipped into his fighting stance. "Are you ready?"

"Strike," said de Jountuil, his sword already moving.

They fought their mock-battle until both were sodden with sweat, then they called a halt by mutual agreement.

"Our host has offered us the use of his bath," said de Jountuil as they cleaned their swords and oiled the blades. "What do you think?"

"I stink like a camel at a hog-wallow," said Rainaut. "I do not think we'd be accused of vanity for bathing now." He plucked at the quilted cotton acton under his chain mail. "This must be washed, too."

De Jountuil snickered. "Not very good company, are we?"

He got to his feet, slipping his sword into its sheath. "I'll tell Khouri's slaves that we will be bathed."

"And we will work out how we are to watch," said Rainaut in a low, determined voice.

"If you insist on giving yourself pain, by all means," said de Jountuil with a half-bow.

In the end, they agreed to keep watch together, at opposite ends of the long corridor that passed both Khouri's and Olivia's bedchamber doors. They kept to the shadows, each just able to see the other, and remained there until the middle of the night. After four nights, when they had watched Khouri's wives and concubines visit him, de Jountuil grew impatient.

"They do not meet because they know you suspect," he told Rainaut while they raked the straw in their horses' stalls.

"They do not meet because they do not meet." Rainaut was no longer angry with de Jountuil, but his patience was worn so thin that he did not trust himself to argue any more.

"I tell you, I saw them," de Jountuil said as they went through the darkened house to their quarters. "I saw them together, in a room off the garden."

"You happened to be there, you happened to see them. And although it was dark, you knew precisely what you saw." He folded his arms as he reached his bedchamber door. "I believe you are sincere and that you do not want me to compromise my name, but I do not and cannot believe that Bondama Clemens would permit such things to happen to her."

"She talked about her husband. She said he was debauched." De Jountuil opened the door to his bedchamber. "You don't believe that either, do you?"

"If what you say is true, all the more reason for her to be virtuous." Rainaut sighed. "We will watch again tomorrow night, but that will be the end of it, de Jountuil."

"Unless she is at that time of moon, when she cannot be touched. Two or three more days, to be certain." De Jountuil glanced back over his shoulder. "The honor of the Hospitalers is imperiled as well as your own. To use our Order to defend those who sin and blaspheme—"

"All right, three more nights," said Rainaut. "But you will apologize for your suspicions and you will confess the wrong you have done Bondama Clemens, both to her and to your confessor. I am not the only one who might impugn the honor of the Hospitalers."

On the second night of the three, while Rainaut and de Jountuil watched from the shadows, Hamal Khouri paused at Olivia's bedchamber door. He hesitated before he knocked, and waited indecisively until the door was opened enough to let in a gnat. "Have you changed your mind, my flower who blooms unseen?"

"No," Olivia answered. "Please; do not ask me again."

"There could be paradise," he persisted.

"No." She started to close the door against him.

"We could have passion, Roman widow," Khouri said in desperation.

"Three times: you have my answer," Olivia said sadly, then closed the door.

Hamal Khouri stood outside her door for some little time, not moving. Finally he leaned his forehead against the door as if to pierce it with his thoughts. Then, giving a resigned sigh, he moved down the hallway toward the chamber where two of his concubines slept.

When the hall had been empty a short while, Rainaut stepped out of the shadows. He walked directly toward de Jountuil, feeling a triumph he had never found in fighting. "Well then," he said in an undervoice as he approached de Jountuil. "Shall we watch for one more night, or was this sufficient?"

"It does not prove that they did not meet before," de Jountuil insisted.

"Doesn't it?" Rainaut took de Jountuil by the arm and started to pull him from his hiding place. "I say that Bondama Clemens is vindicated and that you must do as you have sworn to do. She will receive your apology; you will be forgiven." He shoved de Jountuil against the wall. "And if ever I hear you breathe one word of shame against her, I will make you pay for that indiscretion in blood."

De Jountuil broke away from Rainaut. "You cannot treat me this way. No Hospitaler can demand satisfaction of another."

"A Hospitaler does not defame the innocent." Rainaut pursued him down the hall, trying to keep from raising his voice as he went.

"The innocent?" de Jountuil repeated. "The innocent? What claim does the Widow Clemens have to innocence? You say because we have not caught her in Khouri's arms that she was never there. I tell you she was." He stopped as he saw the way Rainaut was staring at him. "But you are right," he said in a chastened way. "I have nothing to prove what I know to be the truth; I have only my suppositions. They have not been substantiated." He shrugged to acknowledge his defeat. "Very well, I will obtain her pardon and I will confess. It will not change what she has done, but that is nothing to me, is it?"

"When we have taken Jerusalem once more, you and I will pray for her together at the Holy Sepulcher," said Rainaut. "Until then, I will pray for her and for you every morning and evening."

"Through what Saint, I wonder?" de Jountuil asked, making no excuse for his sarcasm. "Never mind. When am I to beg the pardon of your Roman widow?"

"Tomorrow after lauds will be soon enough," Rainaut said curtly. He indicated the door to his room. "I will pray now. You will do well to follow my example."

"What was the story?" de Jountuil asked of the wall, speaking a little more loudly than before. "There was a monk, a very holy man, who saw a courtesan, and conceived a burning desire to save her soul and bring her to a love of the Christ. It was a hard-fought battle, but at last he succeeded and she became a nun, given to fasting and praying and tending to the lowliest needs of lepers and beggars. And only then did the monk realize that he lusted for her—and could no longer take her. Once she had been his for a piece of gold, had he paid it; and now, because of what he had done, she was beyond his reach forever and he was damned." He cocked his head to the side. "There is a lesson in that tale, Rainaut, if you care to find it."

"Is there? I'll consider it," Rainaut said coldly. "And let me offer this parable to you: the story of Susannah and the Elders." He stepped back. "Tomorrow morning, after lauds."

De Jountuil nodded as Rainaut turned away from him.

It took Rainaut longer than he expected to explain the problem to Olivia, who answered his summons in some consternation.

"What is the trouble, Bonsiers?" she asked when she saw the two Hospitalers in the central reception room of Hamal Khouri's house.

"My comrade-at-arms has an apology to offer you," Rainaut prodded, watching de Jountuil narrowly. "I pray you will have the grace to forgive him."

Olivia smiled, her hazel eyes untouched by it. "What is the matter?"

"I…" de Jountuil took a deep breath and dropped to one knee, taking the hem of Olivia's saffron-colored bliaud in his hands. "I erred, and I erred to your discredit, Bondama, for which I petition you now to pardon, both for my thoughts and my actions." He brought the hem of her bliaud to his lips and kissed it. "You have only to tell me I am forgiven, and I will remember you in my prayers with gratitude."

"You erred to my discredit," Olivia mused, looking at Rainaut. "Will you tell me the nature of your error?"

The two men exchanged uneasy glances. "It would not be a good thing for you to hear," said de Jountuil at last.

"All the more reason I should," Olivia rejoined. "When men speak well of me, there is no reason for me to listen," she went on, her eyes still on Rainaut. "It serves only to strengthen vanity, which is a sin. But when men speak ill of me, it is to correct my fault or to warn me, and it is wise for me to know of it." She read the expressions of the two men as she spoke and realized she had guessed correctly: de Jountuil was not alerted and Rainaut was convinced.

De Jountuil, confused for the first time, lowered his head. "I… I supposed that you and… our host… had come to a… a contract of sorts."

"You mean," Olivia corrected him serenely, "that you suspected I was guaranteeing your safety by giving Khouri my body as bond." It was close enough to de Jountuil's suspicions that he would accept it. "There is truth in that."

Both men stared at her, and she took advantage of their astonishment.

"Yes, I consented. But I would not be made his woman, and I would not involve either of you. Our bargain was for three nights, and for three nights I lay with him, for I do not abjure my promise. I do not ask your pardon for this, for we are in an Islamite city in the house of an Islamite who could turn us into the streets any time he chose." She disliked the implied lie in what she said, but she could not be more candid without disaster.

"You mean that you submitted to him for us?" demanded Rainaut.

"No, for me. That it protected you as well was secondary," she said. "Do not misunderstand me. I am a widow, and my married life was far from happy. I know what I can and cannot endure." She looked at de Jountuil who still clung to her hem with nerveless fingers. "So you see, you need no forgiveness. And I have incurred no blame." It was difficult not to scream at the two Hospitalers, to demand that they explain themselves to her. But the laws and the customs which had protected her had faded away more than seven hundred years ago, and what little was left was a travesty of the rights she had known when she was young. "Do you leave me now?" she asked of Rainaut. "Do you denounce me?" she asked of de Jountuil.

"I do not leave you," Rainaut answered at once, though his face had darkened with conflicting emotions. "You might give yourself to all the warriors of Saladin and I would not leave you."

She smiled fleetingly. "I suppose I must thank you for that," she said, musing.

"You need do nothing," said Rainaut with more feeling than he had shown previously.

De Jountuil got slowly to his feet. "Was it a sacrifice?"

For once in her life, Olivia answered indirectly, as her cherished first lover might have answered such a question. "What do you think?"

De Jountuil looked down at her. "Roman widow, you are the most acute woman I have ever met. You have wit and you have something more…" He stared at her. "I wonder how old you are?"

"Older than you think," was her unperturbed answer.

"Stop this jibing," Rainaut insisted. He came and looked down at Olivia. "You let that Islamite possess you?"

"No; I let him touch my body," she answered, watching him, seeking the blue depths of his eyes.

Rainaut made a fist of his right hand and slammed it into his left. "You ought not… I would have defended you."

"And all of us would have been in the street in an Islamite city," Olivia reminded him. "Or would that have pleased you?"

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