Crusader's Torch Page 27

"No—how can you think it?—but to trade…"He broke away from her. "Bondama, how could you accept an Islamite in your bed?"

"I have been forced to take worse," she said without any softening of her words. "Perhaps in another time, at another place, it would be possible not to make such… concessions. But here and now, being who and what we are, what is left to us?" She looked from Rainaut to de Jountuil. "You wish to condemn me for letting our host have what he wished for. What did I risk? But if I had refused, the lives of both of you as well as my own were at stake. What was to stop him from ruining both of you and making me his concubine in any case?" It was not an unreasonable question; much worse had happened in the last hundred years.

De Jountuil was the first to speak. "I do not condone your actions, Bondama, but I applaud your motives. I will say nothing to your discredit, now or ever. And if I hear any speak against you, I will call them to accounting for it." He bowed and kissed the edge of her sleeve. "If I was in danger, you have saved me."

Olivia shook her head. "There is no obligation, Bonsier."

"There is," he countered, and moved away from her, going toward the hallway that led to the stable.

"How could you do this?" Rainaut demanded when they were alone. "How could you let another man touch you?"

Olivia met his gaze fearlessly. "What was I supposed to do? Long for you, desire you, seek for you, and let you die when it was a simple matter to save you? This man did not touch my soul. He did not desire it. He asked only for my flesh, and the scriptures you uphold and adore say that flesh is dross." There was a challenge in the last, and she waited while he framed his answer.

"You do not understand," he said heavily. "You do not know what can be accomplished when there is more than lust—"

"And you will not teach me?" she interrupted. "Sier Valence, you refuse me, but you accuse me when I accept another. I would prefer you, but you deny me. Hamal Khouri does not want my soul. Do you begrudge him my body?"

"Yes!" Rainaut whispered through clenched teeth. "Yes. I begrudge the look of your eye, the scent of your perfume, the silk of your hair to anyone." His voice was so low that it was hard to hear him, but his passion was so great that it made him tremble.

"Then it is yours, Sier Valence. Why do you refuse it?" She touched his face, on the place where the beard no longer grew. Here the skin was pale, like a scar from a burn. She leaned forward and kissed him where his ear joined his neck. "Or do you refuse me?"

"I am a Hospitaler," he said, trying to bring himself to move away from her. "I have taken an oath."

"You break it with your harlot. Why will you not break it with me?" Olivia studied his face intently, then moved back from him. "When you know the answer to these questions, tell me, for I do not understand."

"Bondama Clemens—"

"Olivia," she corrected.

He stared into her eyes as if he could drown in them. "Olivia," he repeated as if in a dream. With an effort he made himself look away from her. "Olivia," he repeated, and did not see that she smiled at the sound of her name.

* * *

Text of an anonymous note sent to the Regent of England, John, written in English.

To my lord John, Prince and liege, the greetings of a friend come to you from Sicilia with the hope that the news is welcome to him, and that what he learns from my poor efforts may be useful in the days to come.

Although Reis Richard and Reis Phillippe pretend to be cordial, their dealings are ever more frayed. With both of them and their armies stranded here while the winter storms rage, the chafing has become so marked that everyone has remarked upon it, even to the most humble village priest. While they have not quarreled in public nor countenanced the battles of their men, the two rulers are not in accord no matter how they strive to maintain the fiction that they are Brothers in the Cross. They are rivals, and all the world knows it.

Reis Richard is more eager than Reis Phillippe to be away from here and into the Holy Land. He is a man itching for blood, who lusts for the clash of arms. Phillippe is of a less excitable temperament, and because he is easily made ill, he is not as anxious as Reis Richard to be under way. He has spent part of the winter in the care of certain monks famous for the cordial they prepare for travelers suffering illness. He claims that his condition has improved. For so young a man, he is most careful of his health; I cannot say the same of Reis Richard, who appears to be inured to physical complaint of any kind.

The cost of wintering in Sicilia is staggering, and it may be that Reis Richard will require more funds before he pushes on to engage the forces of Saladin in battle. As you are doubtless aware, Reis Richard did not anticipate having to pass the winter on this island, but hoped to enter Jerusalem on the eve of Christ's Birth. That has not been possible, and so now he is speaking of the Feast of the Resurrection or some other suitable day. Those who have had experience against Saladin's men have said that it will take more than the mere presence of Reis Richard on the shores of the Holy Land to change Jerusalem. Saladin is a formidable leader and a worthy foeman. He respects those he battles, but he does not concede one length of ground to anyone on reputation alone.

Leopold of Austria has done much to rally the forces of Barbarossa, and the loss of fighting men has not been as great as was feared at first. According to what has been said in recent reports, by the time Reis Richard can bring his men to the Holy Land, there will be sufficient Christian warriors under arms that it will be possible to push back the Islamic enemy. The Islamic forces are more prepared for the terrain than our Christian forces, but our cause and our numbers must eventually prevail. At what cost I do not know.

The commandeering of ships has begun. The English and the French armies are preparing to sail in early spring, so that all requests for monies and supplies must be made quickly or not be made at all until they reach the Holy Land. Burdened as you are, Prince, with the demands of raising the funds to pay for Reis Richard's expedition, I fear you have not heard the last of his demands. If you are able to meet the requirements of the French and Genoese, be aware that there will be more funds needed before the summer is out. I tell you this in the hope that you will not have to impose more tithes on the people of England and English possessions.

Remember me to the Abbot of Saint Giles in Hastings, if that is possible, for it was on his behest that I took the Cross for the sake of God and the sake of England.

A true friend

By my own hand, under seal, in the shadow of Mount Etna, on the 13th day of January in the Year of Our Lord 1191.

- 15 -

Not long after nightfall Rainaut returned from the wharves, his jaw bruised under the two-day stubble that grew there.

"We were worried about you," said Hamal Khouri after he had ordered his slaves to prepare a bath and a meal for his guest. "You said you would not be gone for more than a day."

"I was prepared to send word to the Chapter House, to alert those of our Order that you had been taken prisoner," de Jountuil said, a speculative lift to his brow. "We had no word from you."

"I found a captain from Hydros who will carry us—de Jountuil and Bondama Clemens with me—as far as Cyprus. I have given him half the gold he demands, and he has said he will sail on the first stormless day." His eyes were dark with fatigue and his skin was streaked; his cote was rent in two places, the blazon of his personal arms almost torn from the heavy linen.

"You were in a fight," said Olivia, moving closer to him.

"Three," he corrected her. "There are some rough men who sail these waters, and they enjoy a good scuffle." He tried to laugh but coughed instead. "The captain gave me his word that he would send one of his crew to me each day to tell me when or if he would sail."

"You gave the man money?" de Jountuil repeated incredulously. "What is the matter with you, Rainaut? Do you not know that it is money lost that is spent so recklessly?"

"He will do it. I bested him in a fight with knives and he swore on that." Rainaut sat down heavily. "There are rumors that Reis Richard will soon leave Sicilia with his army. I would rather be gone from here when he arrives."

"And who is to say he is arriving here?" de Jountuil asked. "Why not up the Orontes at Antioch, or at Beirut? Why not at Caesarea or even Tyre, where the Christians are still in control? Why Sidon, for all the Saints in Heaven?"

"I meant here, on this shore, not in this city." He rubbed at his forehead. "Have you a barber, Bonsier Khouri?"

"Of course," said his host urbanely. "I will send him to you while you bathe. Allow me to suggest that your hair as well as your beard wants trimming." He fingered his own elegant beard as he spoke.

"That's vanity," said Rainaut, waving the suggestion away. His exhaustion was taking hold of him now, and he moved and spoke more slowly. "There's no need."

Olivia laid her hand on Rainaut's shoulder. "I am sorry you took so great a chance for my sake."

"Are you?" He looked up at her, over his shoulder. "That is some consolation, I suppose."

"The bath," said Khouri decisively, and clapped loudly to summon his slaves, rapping out orders when they answered his summons. "Ready the bath for the Hospitaler. He is very tired. See that he is attended." When the slaves departed, he regarded Rainaut closely once more. "You may also want a physician."

"There's no need," Rainaut said brusquely. "I manage well."

"You were hurt?" Olivia demanded.

Rainaut almost pushed her away. "It is nothing. A few bruises and a cut or two. I have had worse in sword practice." He took a deep, uneven breath. "It is not necessary to fuss over me."

De Jountuil laughed cynically. "But she will do it, won't she?" He strolled toward the door. "When you're ready, you'll tell us the whole of the plan. In the meantime, I gather we are supposed to pack. I will see to that." He added as an afterthought, "It's a shame we brought no servants. I dislike doing such menial work."

"Why do it at all?" Khouri asked. "I will provide slaves for the task."

Olivia shook her head. "It's part of their Order," she said, lapsing from the Norman French they had been speaking to the language of the Islamites of Tyre. She knew he would understand her better. "Only those who are part of their households are supposed to serve them. They are something like monks and something like soldiers."

"Christian nonsense," Khouri said with amusement.

"Perhaps, but there are men who will die for it, and not all of them will be Christians." She looked down at Rainaut, who was regarding her narrowly. "I am trying to explain to him," she said in French, "why you will not accept his hospitality and permit his slaves to pack your belongings."

Rainaut shook his head. "We have obligations, who wear the Maltese Cross."

"Of course," said Khouri smoothly and uncomprehendingly.

Olivia reached down and touched his face. "You risked a great deal, didn't you?"

"Not as much as you might think," he responded after a moment. He had taken her hand in his and was staring at how their fingers interlaced. "I am very tired."

"Quite an admission for you," said Olivia, teasing him gently. "Come. The slaves will be ready for you shortly." She looked at Khouri. "It isn't proper, but let me lead him back to the bathchamber."

Khouri made an elegant gesture of resignation and bewilderment. "Surely Allah is great," he said.

The bathchamber was cavernous and dark, but the bath, though shallower than what Olivia was used to, was deep enough and wide enough to allow Rainaut to stretch out in the heated water. Soaps and perfumed oils were set out in vials along the inlaid sides of the bath, and two slaves, both young eunuchs, waited to tend to Rainaut.

"One is the barber, the other will massage you when you are through. Khouri understands you do not want bath attendants to wash you." Olivia watched him. "What would you like to wear when you are through? Khouri has provided a robe for you, but if you would prefer something else… ?"

Rainaut hesitated, knowing he should refuse the robe and send the slaves away, but instead he muttered, "The robe is welcome."

Olivia's eyes crinkled as she tried not to laugh. "Very good. If you had refused this, you would have insulted him. He has made an effort to accept your ways. It is wise that you have done something to accept his."

"He has shown us great hospitality," Rainaut said, a bit indirectly.

"So he has," Olivia agreed at once. "We are strangers, we are in a country that is at war, and he was willing to take us into his household. Next time you think ill of him, remember these things, also." She started toward the door. "If you don't mind, I'll wait for you in the little alcove of the library. Seek me there before you go to bed."

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