Crusader's Torch Page 53

"You seek to turn me from God and salvation," he blurted out, startled and taken aback by her question.

"How? By loving you?" She drew a long, uneven breath. "If you think that love is finite, to be meted out in calculated parcels—so much for the family, so much for the Crown, so much for lovers, so much for God—then I suppose you could have reason to fear, because you were afraid you would run out of it. Love isn't like that." She moved away from him, her body trembling. "I wish you could believe me."

For a moment he relented and tenderness came back into his voice. "So do I, Olivia."

She was incapable of tears, but there was a gnawing pain in her chest and throat which was as close as she could come to weeping. This was not the time, she thought, doing her best to stifle the dry sounds of her grief. She steadied herself against the whitewashed walls, unable to bring herself to turn and look at him.

There was a sound of movement from his side of the room, the whisper of blankets tossed aside, and then he was behind her, his arms around her, his white cheek against her hair. "Olivia," he whispered, holding her tightly. "No. Don't turn. Don't look at me. For God's sake, do not look at me."

"But it doesn't matter—"

He cut her off. "It matters to me. I want you to think of me as I was, the way I looked when I first saw you, when I first touched you. Do you remember?"

"Yes," she breathed, seeking for the ghost of their rapture as he spoke.

"You were like no woman I had ever known. You are like no other woman. Not my wife, not the courtesans I've employed. You were like a lamp in the night, the end of darkness. If not for you, I would never have known desire that grows with fulfillment. I would never have known gratification that increases the capacity to be gratified. I would never have known what it is to discover myself through losing myself. You gave all that to me, unstintingly. I should despise myself for allowing you—"

"No," she protested.

"—to carry me so far from my sworn purpose. I ought to have put you behind me the first time I saw you. You turned me from every oath I ever swore. It was my duty to spurn you, and I was not strong enough for that." He kissed her hair and the edge of her jaw. "Yet no matter what punishment is visited on me, I cannot deny you, not in my heart."

"Valence." Her hands closed over his.

Suddenly he released her and shoved her across the room. "God protect me, I am a leper and even that is not enough! I am still in your thrall."

She closed her eyes against his renewed harshness. "You were never my slave or my victim."

"Then I am my own, which is worse." His voice broke. "Do not keep me, Olivia. I have nothing for you and can take nothing from you."

Her voice was steady. "Do you wish me to leave?"

"It is wrong of me," he answered obliquely. "I am sworn to protect you."

"Then you do wish it," she pursued. Now that she had asked, it was easier to press him for his answer.

"I wish to be left to myself, so that I can try to make peace with God before I am called to pay for all my sins." He blessed himself. "How can I do that if you are with me? You are the soul of my idolatry. I cannot search for God when I can reach for you."

She nodded. "All right. I will speak to Kalere or her brother and see what I can arrange. If you like, I will ask for other quarters."

Rainaut started to answer, then laughed. "I ask you to go from here, but I do not want you away from me while you are here. I am a foolish and vain man, Olivia. Forgive me for that."

"There is nothing to forgive," she said quietly. "It will not be easy to stay with you, not for you or me."

He made an equivocal gesture. "If you are within these walls, I would spend all night listening for sounds of you, wanting to catch a glimpse of you. If you are here with me, at least I will be spared that. When you are gone, then I will know that I cannot hear you or see you, no matter how much I look. If you are still here, I will have to clap my hands over my ears to keep from listening for your step, your voice. Stay with me, if you can bear with my inexcusable treatment."

"And if you cannot bear it?" she asked, her manner kind.

"I will think of something then. You and I will deal with that if we must. But if you are leaving, then let me have your company." He reached out his hand to her. "Olivia."

She faltered, not knowing how much she could endure of his erratic temperament. She was aware that his illness had created some of the extremity of feeling in him, but some of it was inherent in the man. Her frown deepened as she considered his state of mind. "I do not want to refuse you," she said at last.

"Then you'll stay." He smiled. "Here, with me."

"For the time being," she said carefully. "If it becomes too difficult, then I will ask Kalere to make other arrangements for me until I leave."

"You will go back to Roma, I suppose?" Rainaut asked with false cheer.

"It is my home," she replied.

"And what is there to keep you away?" His attempt at a smile was more a grimace of pain.

"If it were up to me, I would bring you with me," she said. "But you will not have it." She glanced at the bed. "It is very late. I need rest, and sunrise is coming."

"After a night of love, you are doubtless tired," he said, then went on before she could speak, "Pay no heed to me. I think perhaps you were right after all and I am jealous, because I can no longer love you myself."

"I would take no harm from you, nor you from me," she reminded him, as she had many times already, knowing it was useless.

"So you say," he chided. "You also say I am not a leper and that my disease cannot be caught from me. How can I trust anything you tell me, when you are trying to comfort me with such lies."

"They are not lies," she said wearily.

"Then why is—" He stopped. "No. There's no point in going through this again, is there? You need rest and I… I ought to go to the chapel, to pray." He held his hands up, palms toward her. "I was in error. I should not have started this again. I didn't mean to cause you more hurt."

"It's not important," she said. "If you believed me, it would be, but since you don't, it isn't." For a little time they stood, silently staring at one another. "Go to your prayers, Valence. Let me sleep."

He bowed. "As you wish, Bondama."

When he had left the room, she went to the bed and began to take off her muslin bliaud. She undressed automatically, folding her garments and setting them on the floor beside the bed. Then she climbed between the rough sheets, wishing there were a mattress filled with good Roman earth under her instead of the hempen cords and a mixture of horsehair and straw.

Her sleep was deep, almost to the point of dreamlessness, but when she woke, an hour before sunset, she was not much restored. She knew she was mourning Rainaut, and she could not reveal it to him. As she dragged her ivory comb through her hair, she forced herself to go on to more practical considerations. If she left this refuge, she would have to travel disguised. Did she want to travel alone? She had the yellow cowl that would make her prey to none but the leper bands—the recollection made her shudder—but would deny her any charity along the road. It was not a sensible choice, she decided, and weighed the possibility of wearing men's clothes and claiming she was a eunuch. If she dressed like a merchant or a Greek religious, she might get away with it, but the risks if she were discovered were enormous; not only were there harsh laws for such conduct, she had no one who might aid her if she were apprehended, which would mean imprisonment at best. And prison meant esurient hunger and its madness.

"You're awake," said Rainaut as he came through the door. He looked haggard, and he rubbed at his reddened eyes. "You are expected in the chapel after sunset. Brother and sister want to speak with you."

"What did you tell them?" she asked almost without feeling.

"That I have decided you and I must separate." He made the statement bluntly, his face averted.

"And what was their response?" If she were going to meet with argument or resistance, she wanted to be prepared.

"They claim they understand." He gestured toward the door. "They have offered to… to assist you." Once again he rubbed his eyes. "They ache. At the back."

At another time, she would have been able to offer him draughts to ease the hurt; in her house in Tyre she had kept medicinal herbs and ointments, substances and tinctures that would take the worst of his pain away. She wished she could offer him pansy and willow, or syrup of poppies. "I'm sorry," she said, that being all she could give him now.

"Will this blind me, do you think?" He might have been asking about the weave of a cloth for all the emotion he showed.

"Eventually," she admitted. "And your skin will not be able to endure sunlight—it will make you ill if you walk in the sun." She decided to take the chance. "I have seen this malady before; I've told you. Very well. Listen to what will become of you, and believe me or not as you wish. Your eyes are not going to be able to stand the light of day for much longer. The red you see in them is from damage from the sun. For a time, if you are careful, you will be able to see at night."

"The way you do?" he asked with faint contempt.

"No, but it doesn't matter." She hesitated and went on. "Your skin will puff and swell if you stay in the sun, and so you will not do that. You will become a creature of the night. Not as I am, but a creature of the night nonetheless. Your liver and kidneys will grow weak and in time will fail you, which will mean your death. You may have moments of… delusions, hallucinations; visions, if you will." She started toward him, and then stopped. "You don't want me to stay, do you?"

"No," he said.

She nodded her acceptance. "I will make arrangements." As she went to the door, she paused, staring at him. "Whether I am here or elsewhere, you are part of me now, in your blood and soul, and I will never be wholly free of you."

"Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini," he recited. "Here is my blood which is shed for thee." He grabbed her arm. "Go. Go. While I have the courage to let you."

Olivia could not speak as she left the room and crossed the compound to the chapel where Kalere and her brother Rafi waited for her. She made herself notice the minutest of details about the buildings, the pebbles of the walkway, the dampness and weeds around the well, so that she would not think of Rainaut.

Kalere was kneeling at the altar, her head bowed. Beside her, her brother read from an ancient manuscript in a language Olivia had not heard for more than five centuries. Ran stopped reading as Olivia crossed the threshold.

"God give you His gifts," he said.

"And you," Olivia responded automatically. "You wished to speak with me?"

"It is necessary," said Kalere, turning to face her. "It is apparent that he is not improving."

"No, he's not," said Olivia, coming toward the altar. Without meaning to, she asked, "Where did you learn Asian Greek?"

"You recognized it?" Rafi asked in some surprise. He had a fine voice, deep and musical; it seemed mismatched with his rough-hewn features.

"Yes." Olivia waited for more questions or a challenge: when none came, she said, "He wishes me to leave. He's said so before, but this time… this time he wants me gone."

"He does not want you to see him fail more than he has already," Kalere said. "It is his duty to release you from your promises to him. He should have done this before he was cast out, but he was unable to order you—"

"He had been my escort for some time. It wouldn't have mattered if he sent me away, I still would have shared his fate without his presence." Olivia looked from sister to brother. "You will care for him? He is going to get worse. If he would let me remain with him, I would do it."

"That would be cruel," said Kalere gently.

"I know." Olivia stared down at her hands. "He is no leper, Bondama, and neither am I."

It was Rafi who responded. "He is afflicted and you are not—not in the way he is. There are other ways for one to be cursed." He looked down at the manuscript and read out several tolling lines. "If you know the language?"

" 'Knock on the door that is you yourself and walk on the road that is you yourself, for that door will open to your soul and the road will lead you only to your soul. Open the door that you may know yourself, and open it that your self may truly be yours. Tread the road of yourself that you may arrive at the self that is truly yours.'" Olivia translated. "What text is that?"

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