Crusader's Torch Page 28

He sighed. "Very well, if you wish."

She left him to his bath and the ministrations of the two eunuch slaves.

When he finally came to the library, he was almost a different man. His hair, still wet and newly cut, altered the look of his fresh-shaven face, the burn-like patch on his jaw and neck where little beard grew less obvious now that his skin was smooth. His eyes were still set in dark rings, but he no longer looked a fugitive. The long robe of fine, light wool complimented him, and he moved more easily.

"So, at last we will be bound toward Roma," Olivia said quietly. "I am grateful to you, Sier Valence."

"It is my task to take you there, Bondama." He kept his distance from her, not trusting himself near her.

"And it has been more arduous than any of us anticipated," she said, a certain steely anger under her words.

"Amen to that, Bondama."

She let the silence hang between them, then asked, "How soon do you think we will leave?"

He shrugged. "Word is that Reis Richard is on the sea from Sicilia, bound for Cyprus. He wishes to establish the island as a base for the Crusaders, as Rhodes is for my Order. If this is the case, we can reach either Cyprus or Rhodes and be assured that you will find passage to Roma." His eyes, averted before, now met hers. "You will be bound for home."

"And you?"

"I have my oath to serve. If you are in worthy Christian hands, you will have no more need of my escort." He rubbed at his arm through the wool. "Such indulgence is a hazard to the soul."

She took a step toward him. "What are you talking about, Sier Valence?"

"The bath. I realize now why there are such strictures against bathing and indulging the flesh." He seemed distracted, distant; Olivia attributed it to his fatigue. "The Church Fathers knew what the flesh can do, how it corrupts the soul."

"Is the soul so weak that a little soap and water can harm it?" Olivia asked. "You underestimate it, I think."

"It is flesh that is weak. It succumbs to all manner of temptations." He rubbed his arm again, and this time drew back the loose sleeve to look at it. At once an expression of dismay crossed his features.

"What is it?" Olivia came to his side, holding out her hand to him.

"The eunuch must have… done something." He was staring at his arm where much of the hair had fallen out and the skin had the same look of burn scar as was on his face. "God and the Saints; I am unclean."

"No," said Olivia at once. "You may have a disease, but you are no leper." She took his wrist and stretched out his arm. "I will give you a salve and bandage your arm."

Rainaut lowered his eyes. "Perhaps you ought not to touch me." He blessed himself automatically, his manner dazed. "It cannot be. God would not curse me so."

"It isn't," Olivia said staunchly. "I have seen leprosy before, many times, and this is not what afflicts you, Sier Valence. Use the salve I give you and you will improve." This last was as much bluff as truth, for the few times she had seen others afflicted as she suspected Rainaut was, there had been nothing that stopped the spreading of the burn-like patches on the skin.

"Very well," he said, as grateful as he was dubious. "I'll use the salve." He moved back from her. "You are kind to me, Bondama. You have my thanks."

"Oh, Valence, you are the most exasperating man!" Olivia burst out. "Your fine manner is a mask, and you know it better than I. What is the matter with you? Do you think that every knight who comes to the Holy Land does so for high purpose and for the Glory of God? Do you honestly suppose that every Hospitaler is dedicated to aiding pilgrims, and never once thinks of lining his pockets or filling his coffers? Do you suppose that the Templars never plunder and loot? Do you think that the Kings are coming for the Holy Sepulcher alone? Are you that willfully blind?"

He took a deep breath before he answered her. "I pray that we may all be made worthy of our calling, and the faith we profess be given us. I pray that every knight and man-at-arms who forgets his mission for God will remember it before he damns himself eternally."

For a few moments it was quiet in the library alcove, then Olivia shook her head. "How do you manage to be so obstinate?" she asked sweetly, and started past him out of the room.

He caught her by the elbow. "If I would not imperil both our souls, I would deny you nothing, Olivia."

"This is not very consoling, Valence." She stared into his very blue eyes. "And well you know it."

"Perhaps I should not go with you on the ship." He spoke softly, dreamily.

"Oh, excellent." She rounded on him, her hazel eyes bright with anger. "When the Captain is taken by pirates and I am sold into slavery, I will recall how careful you were. No, Bonsier, you are not excused from your duty. You have said yourself that escort is required. I believe you. And therefore I must rely on you, whether either of us likes it or not. If it were safe for me to travel alone, I would. But in these times, can you tell me I would not be at risk?" Her words, so cutting, were soft as a caress. "How would you answer that?"

He had gone white around the mouth. "I will not abandon you. You must not travel alone. I only wished to… to avoid… to avoid…" He could not finish.

"You want to avoid being with me," Olivia said directly. "Because you desire me."

"It is more than desire, Bondama," he said with difficulty.

"Perhaps," she responded, breaking the hold of their eyes and moving away from him. "Come to me in the morning when you waken, and I will give you the salve. My goods will be packed by the evening. After that, you have only to tell me when we are to leave."

He nodded, not trusting himself to speak to her, though he listened to the sound* of her footsteps and the closing of the door as she left him alone to ponder his responsibilities—to his Order, to his oath, to God, to Olivia.

Tired as he was, Rainaut did not sleep quickly nor easily that night. His thoughts were full of anxiety and conflict, as if he were about to go into battle. He remembered his dead wife, and for a time recited prayers for her repose. He asked God's blessing on Reis Richard. Once he attempted to pray for Olivia, but his petition became so complex and entangled that he gave it up, trying instead to calm himself with the recitation of the Hospitalers' devotional prayers and vows. In the middle of the last, he finally drifted off into uneasy slumber, which ended abruptly when de Jountuil woke him not long after dawn.

"The news is that Reis Richard is truly, now, en route to Cyprus. I had it from a sailor newly arrived from Venezia. His ship stopped at Crete coming here." He was genuinely excited, for once lacking the cynicism that marked his manner.

"A sailor from Venezia?" Rainaut repeated, not fully awake.

"Just arrived. The ship entered the harbor as soon as the chain was lifted. The Leone di San Marco is on the sails, and the crew all speak Venezian." He reached out his arms. "We may have battle yet, my friend. Once the Islamites attack, we can fight as valiantly as any Templar."

"After Bondama Clemens has been safely escorted to—"

"I know, I know," de Jountuil interrupted. "First your precious Roman widow must be put into safe hands. We are honor-bound to see that she is escorted out of Islamite lands. Very well. But then we will see battle." He swung an imaginary sword, whooping at what in his vision was impact.

As he untangled himself from the bedclothes, Rainaut said, "I must go to the harbor. I have to speak to—"

"The Captain. Yes, indeed. Hurry along." De Jountuil whistled a scrap of tune. "If the Venezian ship has got through, there must be others. We'll be out of this place at last."

"We might be gone from here by tomorrow," Rainaut said, his words awed. "We could be on the sea, away from here."

"Then by all means, hurry, hurry," de Jountuil urged lightly. "Get up. Tend to your horse, see that all is in readiness. There is much to do." He picked up one of the huge, soft pillows that were strewn over Rainaut's bed and punched it as hard as he could. "It will be good to fight. I can feel the blood in my veins again."

"It's exciting," Rainaut said uncertainly. He had got to his feet and was staring blankly at the two chests on the far side of the room. "We must visit our chapel as well, for blessing, before we leave."

"To take the contamination of this place off us, yes," said de Jountuil with urgent agreement. "And when that is done, we will be ready for our foe at last."

Rainaut shook his head slowly. "You can engage the Islamites if you wish. While we are in Sidon, I will be at pains to provoke no incident. We are in an Islamite city, and there are but two of us, with a woman depending on us for her safety. Our duty to her and our Order is clear."

"Don't you long to spill a little Saracen blood?" de Jountuil asked enthusiastically. "Despicable as they are, the Templars have a real advantage over us. They are allowed to attack." He stopped and gave Rainaut a quizzical look. "Are you quite well, Sier Valence?"

"Um?" Rainaut made a quirky smile. "I am still tired, I fear. Let me have a little time to wake up, and we may talk again." He scratched automatically at his arm, then forced himself to stop. "Later we must talk, you and I."

"Naturally," said de Jountuil, bowing to Rainaut. "When you are ready, come break your fast with me. Our host has laid out dates and hard cheese for us."

"Very generous," said Rainaut, perplexed at the generosity Khouri was showing them.

"An apt politician, our host. He wants to be certain that the Christians speak well of him, in case the Crusade is successful and he is isolated here. Never say that these Islamites are not canny folk. If we were not enemies and had they not denied the Holy Sepulcher, I might admire them."

Rainaut was unable to come up with a response. He ran his hands through his hair, then stretched. "I will join you directly." He turned away, but added as if the answer were of no more than passing interest, "Has Bondama Clemens been told of this news?"

"No, not that I know of," said de Jountuil, smirking.

"Then I must speak with her. She will have to speed her arrangements." He was already pulling the Islamite robe over his head, tugging at the seams in his eagerness to be dressed. "She will be glad to be gone. Who would have thought when we came here that it would be almost April before we were able to depart once more."

"You are caught in your own fancy," said de Jountuil. "But I will let her know you have news for her, how's that?"

"I thank you for it," said Rainaut as he rummaged in his larger chest for clean clothing. "Tell her I will be with her once I have set my own things in order."

"Oh, most certainly," said de Jountuil with elaborate and false courtesy. "There is little for me to tend to, in any case. How fortunate I am to have this task wished upon me."

"You don't have to behave so badly," Rainaut warned. "As Hospitalers, we are to welcome humble tasks to aid pilgrims and other Christians. You haven't forgot that, have you?"

"Naturally not," said de Jountuil at his most blithe. "Bring on the chests and cases, and I'm the man for it. Put my other actions out of your mind."

"I didn't mean to rebuke you," Rainaut said, shocked at his comrade-at-arms. "I… never mind. I'm not quite awake. I will speak with Bondama Clemens myself. I know you have tasks enough to attend to."

"Generous of you," said de Jountuil, heading for the door, whistling once again.

When he was gone, Rainaut sat for a short while, his elbows propped on his knees, his chin in his hands, his mind amazingly blank. At last he shook himself mentally and he returned to choosing his garments for the day, and to arranging his things for packing. He had just donned his own cote, his arms blazoned on the breast, when Olivia came through his door without knocking.

"Why didn't you tell me?" she asked, not precisely angry, but far from pleased.

"I… I learned only a short while ago myself," he said, making himself continue his chores. "I was going to wait on you in a short while, to inform you—"

"Khouri and de Jountuil have both saved you the effort," she said without apology. "So. Does that mean we are to leave for Cyprus, in the hope of meeting your King and his army there?"

"If it can be arranged, yes." He hefted two short swords, debating if he should wear them or pack them away.

"And do you think it can? You are the one who has been making arrangements." She gave him time to answer, and when he did not, she went on, "I have to send notice to my… my major domo in Roma."

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