Crusader's Torch Page 32

"On Cyprus," he added, hoping it was true. Without thinking, he reached out for her and drew her close. To his surprise, she resisted him. "There is no sin."

"Sin?" She let her head rest on his shoulder. "That means little to me, Sier Valence."

"Then why—" His lips rested against her sunburned forehead, and he kissed her there, not as lightly as he had intended. "Olivia, why?"

It was always difficult, she told herself as she remembered the other times, and the variety of responses she had encountered. "I am not what you think I am," she began at last, her eyes fixed on the middle distance. "I am not like you."

"You're Roman," he added, hoping to make her laugh.

"Yes," she said seriously. "I am Roman." The next would be the test, when she would know absolutely whether he would accept her. She recalled others who had laughed, or upbraided, or were repulsed. "I am Roman in the way the Caesars are."

"Old patrician family," he said, wondering why she was telling him this, and why now.

"Yes," she said slowly, feeling her way. "I cried Ave to Claudius and Nero and Galba and Otho and Vitellius and Vespasianus. I… I was condemned to death by Vespasianus."

"The sun has addled your wits," Rainaut murmured, pity cooling his passion.

"The sun has hurt me," she corrected him, with some of her asperity returning. "But my wits are fine. I am trying to tell you what… what I need of you. I want you to understand why my love is… as it is." If only she could still weep, she thought. Tears would excuse so much. But since she had wakened in her tomb, her eyes remained dry.

He adjusted his arms so that he held her more securely. "Rest, Olivia. In the morning—"

"In the morning, my face and arms will blacken and blister, and I will be powerless to move, without your help, your love, tonight." She spoke with deliberate bluntness. "I am wholly at your mercy, Sier Valence. My… life is in your hands."

He hushed her with half-words and gentle nudges that were not quite kisses. "It will be better, once we've rested and eaten."

"Yes," she said with strange intensity.

"I will not let you come to harm." He kissed her hair, then rested his scarred cheek on the top of her head. "I will stay with you."

"It will not be enough," she said softly, as much to herself as to him.

Rainaut felt her tremble under his large, square hands. "I have sworn to have no love before the love of God, Olivia. Perdition waits for those who set aside oaths made to God." He wanted, suddenly, to convince her; for the first time the words sounded hollow to him.

"If you will not let me love you, I will be as good as dead by sunset tomorrow." There was nothing of wooing about her. She spoke as if she were discussing mild weather. "You are my salvation, if I am to be saved."

"That's blasphemy," whispered Rainaut, trying to feel shocked without success.

"It is truth." She lifted her face to him, looking up into the hidden blue of his eyes. "Valence, I do not lie, I do not blaspheme."

As part of his mind searched for a rebuke or an argument, his mouth met hers: disputes vanished as their kiss deepened. How was it that he had never realized that she was made for loving him? Why had he never seen how sweetly her body moved and fit with his? Or had he known it and denied it? His arms tightened and he pressed close to her, hating their garments for being between them.

With both arms around him now, Olivia began to feel her surge of desire and she welcomed it, welcomed him. It had been so long since she had experienced the enormity of love that she almost broke away from him.

He ended their kiss but did not release her. "I will be damned for this," he said, wishing he could see her face. Nothing had ever moved him as she did, no woman before had shown him that the entire world was less than a kiss.

Slowly, awed by her, he began to caress her. His hands were tentative, for he knew how badly the sun had burned her. Yet there was more than concern making him hesitate; he had never wanted to know a woman with her body before, had never before sought the soul in the flesh.

"Here," she whispered, loosening her clothes. With Khouri she had been deliberately tantalizing; with Rainaut, she was oddly shy, knowing she was more vulnerable to him because of his deep tenderness for her.

He stopped her. "Let me. Please."

She dropped her hands, palms up, to her sides, to lie on the soft, cool sand. When she trembled, it was not from cold.

Rainaut could not speak as he opened the front of her bliaud. The lacings were not entirely dry, and the chilly damp feel of the narrow silken cords startled him. He gave his full attention to the lacings, taking care not to rip the cloth as he pulled the lacings free. He was breathing a bit faster now, as he opened the front of her bliaud. With a soft sound, partly of protest, partly of expectation, he slid his hands through the opening, searching.

"Wait," she said urgently. "Valence, listen, just a moment." The words came in a rush. "I need something of you, something from you with your love."

"Anything," he said, his fingers making their first discoveries, his ardor increasing. "You have me now. Always."

He was not as skilled a lover as Khouri had been, but there was more fervor in him, more wonder, than Khouri would ever experience. Olivia was shaken with Rainaut's exultation, with the joyous frenzy that changed his caresses from hesitant to eager, that transformed his deference to recklessness. In her weakened state, she could not respond with the full range of passion that stirred at the core of her being, yet she was able to meet his desire with her own, to reach far beyond the increasing rapture of their entwined, united bodies to the melding of their very souls.

What sustenance she took from him as they moved together was as much from their joining as from his blood; the fulfillment they attained nourished them both.

It was some time before either could speak. It was only after a long, leisurely kiss that Rainaut finally said, "You are worth damnation, Olivia," as he stared down into her eyes. "Not all the Hosts of Heaven could keep me from you now."

"All the Hosts of Heaven are formidable opposition," she said, troubled behind her smile.

"You are dearer to me than redemption and—"

She put her fingers on his lips, stopping his words. "Don't. Don't make loving you a contest. You are not a prize to be won by me or by God, you are Valence Rainaut, and Valence Rainaut is my lover and my love."

"Thanks be to God and all the Saints in the calendar," said Rainaut, catching her hand in his and holding her in a suddenly tight embrace.

"No," Olivia said, shaking her head once. "You need thank no one but yourself, and for your own sake."

He laughed aloud. "More blasphemy. Or is that heresy?" His lips were gentler now, and he was willing to let her rouse him, to give over to her the finding of new pleasures and greater joys. Twice he stopped her to work his own magic on her, to seek out the hidden treasures of her body, to revel in the glory of loving her. The feel, the scent, the taste of her filled his being. Nothing he had known before had summoned so much from within him; no woman had shown him a fruition of such ineffable splendor.

Olivia, lying on the length of his body, wished again that she could cry—but this time, for jubilation.

* * *

A note from the jester Fauvin to Prince John, written in English.

To my most respected and reverend Prince, your unfortunate servant sends greetings and regards to you from the island called Cyprus, upon the occasion of your brother's occupation of it.

From what Reis Richard has said, it is his intention to sell this place to the Poor Knights of the Temple. The Hospitalers have their part of Rhodes, and this way, the Templars will have their own island, too. Reis Richard has not yet mentioned what he intends to do with the money he will acquire from this sale. Doubtless it has not yet crossed his mind Princess Barengaria has arrived with your Mother Eleanor, who has declared that she wishes to see the marriage of Reis Richard and his betrothed as soon as it may be arranged. So the day for the Mass and the feast has been set for the twelfth, and already Reis Richard has ordered a grand entertainment for everyone. It is said that the food and drink will be served for three days and nights without stop, that dancers will dance and musicians will play and sing all that time. My feet ache at the very thought. There will be masques and mock battles and everything that a bride could possibly want for her wedding festivities, with one possible exception, and the pages are not going to say anything to the little Spaniard.

In conquering the island, Reis Richard has come upon several bands of pirates. Most of them have been flayed or hanged or had their hands cut off. There are some lepers who have been sent back to their caves to rot away alone. Also there were a few survivors of a recent pirate battle found, one of whom is a Hospitaler and the widow he escorts. Two oarsmen, slaves from Antioch, were also found, as well as one of two cooks. Sadly, he has damaged his arm and the physicians have said that it cannot be saved; he must let them cut it off or be dead in a week. There were also a small group of survivors of one of the winter storms found on the south side of the island, living in a small village and tending goats. Until Isaac accepts surrender, the complete search of Cyprus is not complete and there are certainly more unexpected inhabitants. It is rumored that there is a community of monks at the crest of one of the highest peaks, and that they live in cells and practice a Christian rite so ancient that the Copts know nothing of it. You might find it interesting, my Prince; you are so curious about so many things.

Word has it that the Islamites are preparing to meet our forces in summer. From what I have seen of this place, I am not pleased at the thought. The days already are bright and hot, and it is only May. The people here say that the summer days are like ovens, and the rocks hum in the heat. Already some of the knights and men-at-arms have suffered various complaints because of the heat. While it is not possible to discard mail before a battle, some of them would like lighter armor than what they must wear. A few have the flux and we have been warned that it will increase as the days get hotter. Flux is never to be taken lightly, but flux in armor is as grisly a thought as putrescent wounds.

I doubt anyone has mentioned it in regular dispatches, but there have been some difficulties with our men raiding local villages, both for goods and for women. Three knights especially were accused of rape. Reis Richard has excused them of this crime, but there are Cypriots who are displeased with our men, and who have no reason to want to help them. If the Crusade goes poorly, I fear for the safety of our knights at the hands of such villagers. Not that I blame them. Two of the women were still girls, and they are ruined for life. No man on Cyprus will have them, they cannot become nuns because they are no longer virgins, and their families do not have enough to support them the rest of their lives. All that, because three knights were bored and wanted a little sport. These villagers are not their serfs, Cyprus is not their fiefdom; they had no right to take the girls, no matter what Reis Richard has said.

Queen Eleanor has established her small household in as lavish a style as is possible here. She says it is to show Barengaria honor; I suspect it is to keep the Spanish Princess in everyone's mind. As a mother, Queen Eleanor has always indulged her favorite son in whatever he wished, but this time she is adamant.

I have met Barengaria of Navarre. I have performed for her a few times, though I am getting too old for such tricks. She is a lovely, quiet creature, something like a bird trained to sit on the hand. She does not speak much—her command of French is not very good—but she watches everything, and often she prays. Poor Princess, to be dragged away from her family to chase a bridegroom over half the world in the company of his mother. I hope your brother can forget himself long enough to do well by Barengaria. She is fascinated by him, and if he will only be husband to her as well as King, she may be content.

When we leave Cyprus, I will send you word again. As far as I can determine, Reis Richard has not incurred more debts with France since he reached Cyprus, and perhaps the money from the Templars will be used to reduce what is owed, though the rumor is that there are other plans for the sum. May God guide and protect you, my Prince, and give you strength to persevere.


By my own hand, on Cyprus, the 8th of May, the Lord's Year 1191.

- 18 -

Midnight had passed but the roistering continued unchecked. From galleries and rooftops, banners with the leopards of England and the Pegasus of the Templars floated on the warm night breeze. All of Limassol celebrated the marriage of Richard of England to Barengaria of Navarre. Musicians and acrobats and jugglers and jesters vied with one another for the attention and coins of the crowds. The chapel of Saint George was bright with candles, and the sounds of chanting could occasionally be heard through the revelry.

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