Crusader's Torch Page 58

As Olivia hurried after Pere Savaric, she consoled herself with the thought that in the chapel she would not be exposed to the phthartic touch of the sun.

* * *

Text of a letter from Niklos Aulirios to Ragoczy Sanct' Germain Franciscus.

To the most extraordinary associate of my mistress, Niklos Aulirios sends greetings from Roma and hopes that if this place called Lo-Yang truly exists that Ragoczy Sanct' Germain has found a haven there.

Your letter, which was sent to Alexandria, has only just been brought here, and that more by accident than anything else: vassals of Henry, the Holy Roman Emperor, returning from the Crusade, had the letter which was given to them at Ascalon by a monk coming from Alexandria. Because they were bound for Roma and one was literate, the monk entrusted your letter to them, and now it is in my hands, held for the arrival of Olivia.

It is true that she has not yet come here. I have men searching for her, so far without success. That alone causes me concern, for although I know how resourceful Olivia is, and how determined she can be, I am also aware that these are unsettled times in the Holy Land, and she might find more hazards than even she can manage.

Why I tell you this I do not quite know. In that Lo-Yang place, you are hardly in a position to help me search for her. And by the time this reaches you—if it does reach you—I will doubtless have found her. Still, you are the one who is her most treasured friend, and it lessens my fear for her to write to you on her behalf. Certainly if you were anywhere in Europe I would have sent for you before now.

If it were possible, I would leave the estate I have purchased for her and go looking for her myself. However, the law now requires a legally appointed factotum to be present or the villa is liable to seizure. Now that the land is producing well and there are foals in the pastures, many of the local landlords are searching for an excuse to claim this place as their own. One of the local monasteries has informed me that half the grapes in the vinyard are theirs by right. There are others who feel the same way but have not the cloak of religion to conceal their avarice. Olivia has ordered me to establish a home for her, and that I have done. I am not going to risk this place when I have other means of searching for her; not yet, in any case. If the men who are trying to find her are not successful by the end of summer, then I will have to make some arrangements for here and look for her myself, in spite of her orders and in spite of the laws here. There are many times when I wish that were possible now.

How have you fared in this city-that-may-not-be-there? Have you been permitted to live more in the way you would like? Do the people of that land tolerate you better than those in this country do? What of Rogerian? Is he still with you? Doubtless the links he has forged, with you are as durable as mine with Olivia. I know he and I are the same sort, and it would take more than a Crusade to break my tie to her.

Always it comes back to Olivia, doesn't it? Not necessarily for you, but for me. She is more than family ever was, or it may be that my family was lost to me so long ago that my bond with Olivia is stronger than memory. Is it the nature of what you've made me, or is there something intrinsic to her? I do not expect you to answer that question. I am musing more for my benefit than for yours, and to quiet my alarms.

When she returns I will see she reads your letter at once—if she doesn't ask for it before I mention it—and I will hope she has the means to get word to you that she has returned to Roma in safety. It is hard to endure separation, and if that is so for me with her, what must it be for her with you? I hope that you will be able to send her word again, for she has been worried about you ever since those comrades of yours were burned in that barn. If she knows that you are well, it will hearten her more than any news I might give her about crops and the repairs of the roof.

I am so much a creature of my own time and place that I will tell you I will pray for you, though that is not precisely what I mean, nor is it quite what I intend to do. Perhaps it is best if I put it in these terms: I trust you are restored and once again part of the world; those times of despair, as Olivia has shown me, are the greatest burden for those whose lives are so very, very long.

This letter is being carried by a monk who is bound for Armenia. He has promised to find a caravan traveling the Old Silk Road and will entrust it to the leader of the caravan, with the request that it be handed on until it has reached Lo-Yang, or whatever place you are. A scholar of your capacity, and your foreignness, should not be impossible to locate even in mythical places. If all goes well, it should take no more than two or three years to reach you, if it is to reach you at all, and if you have not gone to yet another city in the Silken Empire, or the Kingdom of Prester John. By then Olivia will be here and the travail of the last two years will be memory. Or so I hope with all my soul.

Niklos Aulirios

bondsman to Atta Olivia Clemens

By my own hand and under seal on the 22nd day of May in the Christian year 1192.

- 14 -

Sigfroit and Giralt emerged from the Genovese church Santissima Annunciata in ill-concealed fury. They crossed the wide street in long, heedless strides. "They won't help us," said Giralt before Sigfroit could speak. "Since the Papal legate has made his decision, only a Cardinal or the Pope himself will be allowed to overrule him, or so says this bishop as the priests have advised us he would."

Gace made an impatient gesture and growled an obscenity. "Where do we go from here, then?"

"We have been to most of the coastal cities," said Giralt in an attempt to soften the blow this news was to Fealatie. "That may count for something. We have seen almost every bishop and Catholic Siegnier between Ascalon and Antioch. What more can we do?"

With deep fatigue Fealatie answered, "I suppose we can wait for the conquest of Jerusalem." She squeezed her eyes shut so that she could not weep. "Not that it's likely to happen soon."

"No," agreed Giralt sadly. "Not the way things stand now."

"They say that Saladin will accept a truce," said Sigfroit. "There are those who want the fighting to be over, Islamite as well as Christian. Too many men are dead or missing, and there are not enough coming to replace them."

The entrance of the funda of Scandalion was narrow; the arrival of a company of men-at-arms wearing the badge of the Holy Roman Emperor forced Fealatie and her men to give them room. They jostled their way into the central courtyard and found a corner that was fairly quiet.

"So what is to be done?" asked Gace when they were settled. "Do we go on to another city or fortification? Or another church, in the hope of finding a Cardinal in residence?"

"Be quiet, Gace," said Sigfroit without heat.

"I'm willing, if that is what you"—Gace bowed toward Fealatie—"decide must be done. I am sworn to you and to your cause, or so I have been told. But I doubt you will find anyone who will modify your penance. It is Jerusalem in harness or nothing. They are determined. Your husband is the most determined of all."

Giralt held up his hand. "You're affronting her. It's hard enough to have the priests speak against her; it is intolerable when you do." Anger flared in his eyes, then he deliberately calmed himself. "We will have to decide what to do."

Gace laughed. "We can wait forever, or we can leave and not go home."

"Will you stop that?" Sigfroit demanded. "It is bad enough that we must endure these slights and insults from the Church and that the terms of her penance condemn all of us, but to have you continually urging sedition is more—"

Once again Giralt motioned for silence. "There is no point to haggling over what we cannot change."

"Well," said Gace when they had said nothing for several heartbeats, "there is always the Grail."

"Enough!" Giralt protested. "What possesses you?"

Gace shrugged. "I am tired of heat and dust and sand and bad food and poisoned wells. I am tired of sleeping in straw, of burning like a loaf in the oven, of bowing to every religious as if they all were kings. I'm tired of being an outcast because my chatelaine won a victory. She should be honored, not shamed. And we should share her honor."

"And as it is, you are—" Fealatie could not go on. She turned away from her three men, one hand to her eyes.

"Gace, you're despicable," Giralt hissed at him.

"I'm only saying what every one of us is thinking," he said sullenly.

"Even if that's so," Sigfroit cut in, determined to stop the hostility that flared among them, "we have vowed to escort Fealatie, and escort her we will, while there is breath in our bodies and blood in our veins."

"A fine thing for you to say," Gace muttered, but much of his pugnacity had faded. "If not Jerusalem and not the Grail, what?"

Fealatie forced herself to face her men. "This impasse was not part of our pact. None of us thought we would be stopped from entering Jerusalem. I am willing to release you and to stipulate that your obligations to me are discharged."

Gace stared at her, the beginnings of delight in his eyes. Sigfroit looked shocked. Fealatie's expression did not change. Giralt was grief-stricken. It was Sigfroit who spoke first. "You… cannot mean this."

She stood straighter, her voice was stronger as her conviction grew. "I do mean it. I give you full release and my word that no one can accuse you of abrogating your oaths, either to Fraizmarch or to the Church." Now that the words were out and there was no abjuration possible, she felt as if her bones were made of sand. What if Sigfroit and Giralt wanted release as well? Desperate as her plight had been with three armed knights for escort it would be a hundred times worse if she were alone. It pleased her that she did not speak of her fears but continued resolute.

"You can't stay here alone," said Giralt, as if he had sensed her dread. "Bondama, you must not say—"

Gace interrupted him. "I want a release, written by you and witnessed by a monk or priest, so that there can be no question of desertion. The terms will not be conditional or detracting from the honor of my House. And I want some proof to offer your husband when I report to him. He is not a forgiving master."

"What sort of knight leaves a chatelaine in a foreign land without escort?" Sigfroit scoffed. "What sort of man abandons a woman in a place like this?"

"She is a chatelaine, not a woman." Gace glared at Sigfroit. "Isn't that what brought us all on this fruitless journey? Just as well if she suffered a woman's fate and remembered what she is. Let her get her belly big and her dugs full, and then—"

"Enough," said Giralt, dangerously quiet.

"This knight knows what women are for," Gace said defiantly. "And so would both of you if the sun had not baked your brains." He looked at Fealatie with narrowed eyes. "You'll stand by your offer? You will not change your mind by nightfall? Or play some trick that will keep me in this hellish place?"

"It would be better if you changed your request," said Giralt, glancing from Gace to Fealatie.

"No, I will not change. If you are not willing to serve me, I will provide you with the release you want. I want no unwilling men at my side. I will be certain you are absolved of obligation; you're right about my husband." This last did not come out well, but she went on, "It will be witnessed as you ask, and Sigfroit and Giralt"—she stopped as both men objected, then overrode them—"Sigfroit and Giralt will witness the release as well, so that there is no hint of clandestine dealings."

"Sensible," said Gace, starting to smile.

"And necessary, if you are not to be questioned." She regarded Gace for a long moment. "When… when do you wish to leave?"

"As soon as possible. At once. Tomorrow, if you can arrange it." He ignored the condemning oaths of his fellow knights, saying, "I can be ready to depart in the morning."

"I'll try. I'll have to find a churchman who will help draw up the release." She turned to Giralt. "Will you find a priest to do this?"

"No," said Giralt, looking at her with steady, worried eyes. "I will do nothing that puts you in more danger than you are now." His voice grew stern. "I pray you, don't ask that of me, Bondama."

"All right; Sigfroit?" She waited for his answer.

"If Gace wants this release, he should be willing to find his own cleric for the task," he said, unwilling to look at Gace any longer. "Let him muck out his own stall."

"I'll attend to it," Gace said promptly, with a meaningless smile. "I ought to have suggested it myself."

Giralt started to speak, then fell silent.

"It's decided, then," said Fealatie. "Gace is to leave us without dishonor, and we… we will have to decide how to proceed." She put her hands on her wide belt, attempting to assume the confidence that had been wearing away over the months of indecision and delay. "In the meantime," she went on with a feigned cheerfulness, "let us have a meal. It's more than past time for—"

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