In the distance, a voice was raised in a haunting cry, calling the faithful of Allah to prayer. The sound spread across the night sky until it filled Nicholas' head with its mystery, mingling with the scent of sandalwood and the silk of the air. He preferred the nights in the Holy Land; the burning sun had already singed his fair European skin and sapped his energy. He braced both hands in the open window frame, exotic in its keyhole shape, and leaned out, absorbing it all, the air cool once the sun's heat had ceased, the smell of refuse that lingered in any city, the sky flung full of stars that burned with a brilliance that the mists of the north often hid.
Nicholas turned away from the window abruptly. He crossed the woven patterned carpet in his finely appointed room to the desk, where a letter to his mother and sister rested. But his quill dripped onto the page and dried whilst he wrestled with words that had come hard in the past few months. Against the wall stood his lute, but his nimble fingers could make nothing but discordant sounds that maddened him. His books had lain abandoned and ignored since Wales--he had grown disgusted with their pious morality. When a short knock sounded on his door, he called, "Enter," with gratitude.
Nicholas rose to his feet and bowed whilst the Holy Roman Emperor, King of Sicily and Jerusalem, Frederick II closed the door behind him and went to the fire to warm his hands. "Good even, your Grace. What can I do for you?"
Frederick glanced over his shoulder. The firelight gleamed on the reddish hair and beard that he had inherited from his grandfather, the great Barbarossa, but the glint in his eyes was far different from that sturdy emperor. "Sit down, Nicholas. I came here to avoid people bobbing up and down like ducks in a pond."
Grinning, Nicholas sat by the fire and stretched his legs out. "You scarcely mind it in Sicily," he pointed out gleefully. The two men, similar in age and station, had found that they also shared a lively mind and a questing soul in common. Nicholas had received all the benefits of being born of the ruler of the small but rich duchy of Brabant, but as the child of his father's second marriage was barred from inheriting anything, so consequently had left his home to make his fortune with his sword.
Frederick laughed at Nicholas' acerbic comment and seated himself. "In Sicily, I am king, *imperator*, the Emperor of the Romans. Here I am the European who is a friend to the Mohammedans, but still a European, still the enemy."
Nicholas snagged a decanter off of the nearby table and poured them each a goblet of red wine. "I would have thought you would be on your prayer rug now, facing east and muttering devoutly."
Frederick, drinking deeply from his cup, choked and sputtered with laughter. Although born of the German Hohenstaufen dynasty, he had spent most of his life in his mother's inheritance, the Mediterranean island of Sicily. His ease and knowledge of Greek and Arabic languages and literature, and his known preference for some of the habits and customs of his neighbors to the south had earned him the title of "The Baptized Sultan"--behind his back. Only one who knew him as well as Nicholas did would dare use it to his face. "God's bones, Nicholas!" he said once his throat had cleared. "Once you would have been the first to chide me for my ungodly ways!"
"Once," Nicholas agreed, his face hidden behind his metal cup.
"What happened, then? What changed you from the God-fearing Nicholas de Brabant to this?"
Nicholas lowered the cup to stare into its ruby depths. "I learned," he said slowly, "that there are more truths than those of which the Church tells us."
Frederick regarded him thoughtfully. Nicholas had joined his host shortly after arriving in Sicily, remaining beside him whilst first the emperor had fallen ill of a deadly plague, and later had been excommunicated by the pope for not rising from what may have well been his deathbed to lead the Knights of the Cross to the Holy Land as he had sworn to do. But Frederick had known, even before they left Sicily, that something had happened to his friend. "Ah," he said after several moments. "A woman."
"Yes. A woman. Gwyneth. And I was sent here as penance for her murder."
"You did not kill her." The statement was quick and absolute.
"No, I did not kill her. But I am responsible for her death, if not her murder." Abruptly, Nicholas rose to his feet to go to the window.
"You are impatient, my friend," the emperor said softly. "You came here longing for action for glory and war and find yourself locked in the diplomat's game that I and al-Kamil are playing. No," he said with a raised hand, forestalling Nicholas' instinctive denial, "I know you. You finger the dagger at your belt whilst we politely war with the Saracens."
Nicholas gripped the edge of the windowsill. "I must go," he said. "My lord, I will be back by morning, but I need--"
"I understand." Frederick rose to grip his friend's shoulder. "Go, get into a tavern brawl, find a pretty wench to while the hours with. Then come back to me, and help me make this war a bloodless one."
Nicholas, however, went neither to the European tavern nor the Eastern brothel. The narrow streets of Jerusalem were too confining. He felt stifled and suffocated by the walls of the buildings that seemed to loom above him.
In retaliation, he made for the gate. No one was to be allowed in or out after sunset and before sunrise, but Nicholas was well-known as a powerful nobleman and an intimate of the emperor. Several moments of persuasion and several more gold coins, and Nicholas was free of the city.
Behind him, the stench of offal and fear faded to be replaced by the dry cleanliness of dust and sand. A crescent moon lingered in the sky, tilted like a contemptuous smile directed at the foolish mortals below. For untold hours, Nicholas wandered among the dunes, his thoughts his only companions.
Until he rounded one hill and saw her.
Although his feet made no sound on the soft sand, she seemed to sense him and turned. A dark cloak enveloped her from head to foot, framing a face of cool, remote beauty. In the starlight, her eyes were pale, colorless gems that were as hard and brilliant as diamonds. Her face, against the darkness of her cloak and the raven blackness of her loose hair, was as pale as alabaster, as perfect as any statue the ancients had carved.
But no statue had eyes like hers, eyes that contained both ice and fire.
For several moments, Nicholas simply looked at her, certain that she was an image of his fevered brain, and no real thing. Then she moved, raising her hand in a slight gesture, and Nicholas awoke from his daze.
"Demoiselle, are you lost?" He stepped forward, his impetus to help, to protect.
She stopped him with a slight shake of her head. "No, mon chevalier, I am not lost. But you are, I suspect."
"If I am lost, I will find my way come morning. Who are you? Why have I not seen you before? There are few European women in Jerusalem. I thought I had met all who had come with the Emperor."
The woman raised one slender milk-pale hand and slid the hood of her cloak down. "I did not come with the emperor, monsieur. I came with--" She cut herself off abruptly and turned away, walking with the slow, measured paces of someone wandering aimlessly.
As though bound by a hawk's jesses, Nicholas followed until he stood by her side. She ceased her meanderings and turned to face him. At close range, her beauty did not fade. If anything, the passionate light in her eyes grew stronger, brighter. "Who are you?" he murmured again. "A demon sent to torment me?"
She laughed. "And if I were, could you resist me?"
The spell of the moon, the stars and her eyes had him in thrall, and he could only speak the truth. "No. I could not." Unable to resist, he raised one hand to her cheek. The skin there was chilled with the desert night, but so soft, so very smooth. Her hair slid like silk against his wrist. She stood quietly before him, but there was nothing passive in her manner. But instead of the challenge her eyes had shot at him before, they were faintly hesitant, clouded with confusion.
She stepped back, away from his touch, and turned to walk again among the mounds of sand that shone golden in the sun, but now were base metal, dull and grey.
She spoke as if there had not been that highly charged moment between them. "Is it true, do you think, that treasures lie in this desert?"
Without removing his eyes from her impassive profile, Nicholas said, "Yes, indeed."
For the first time in two hundred years, Janette wished for the simple human functions that she had freed herself from. The rituals of quickening breaths and pounding hearts had been physical symptoms of agitation that she no longer had to deal with. She realized, however, that those outward expressions had somehow relieved tensions, and that she was denied their release.
She had sensed the mortal from a distance, and some perverse urge had prompted her not to move out of his sight. She had been curious, had wanted to see who it was, why he was here--if she would feed again that night. But something in her had shifted, slightly, when she had turned to see the tall, golden haired man behind her. His clothes, even though he was not wearing a surcoat embroidered with a Crusader's Cross that would have sickened her, marked him a European and part of the emperor's host.
Whatever it was that had shifted when she saw him shattered when he touched her. No man had touched her in two hundred years without her permission--and lived to tell of it. So LaCroix had promised and so he had given her the power to see that it was so. She should have had this young mortal's head for daring.
His fingers had been reverent. Hard from battle, they had touched her with a gentleness she had never known in her life. They did not demand, or even ask. They had taken nothing from her but her will to resist. She could not deny their magic.
His voice was calm and smooth, his French faintly accented but obviously native. It was almost a physical thing, wrapping her in a cloak of sound, soothing and inciting.
And in his eyes were passions that he did not bother to hide. Even in the darkness of night, she could see their clarity. They reflected not the night, but the summer sky that she had been denied so often in her mortal life, and denied herself in order to have an eternity of stars. In this mortal's eyes, however, she could have both...
If she had a heart that beat more than five times an hour, it would have been pounding now. If she had blood in her veins to spare, it would have flooded her cheeks. But she had neither, and so was able to maintain her poise of calm, the utter impassivity that tantalized and unnerved so many men.
"If there was such treasure in the desert, what do you think happened to it? Was it abandoned? Was it hidden here, and its possessors forgot? Were they driven from this place, as so many before have been?"
"No one forgets a treasure. No one abandons it. But it could be taken from them, ravaged and ruined. Taken, and destroyed in its taking. Man rarely treats well that which he treasures."
Turning her head, Janette caught the first glimmer of the false dawn on the horizon. She needed to get back to the city, needed to take shelter in the house LaCroix had rented for them. "I must go," she said softly.
"Wait!" His voice was urgent now, a demand that easily could have edged over into a plea. "Who are you? What it your name?"
"I am Janette," she said, knowing she shouldn't. "And you?"
"Nicholas de Brabant. Where do you live in the city? Where can I find you?"
Janette knew that she should lie, misdirect him. Instead, she gave in to her weakness and said, "Come back out to the desert. Meet me here tomorrow night."
"What, here? Impossible. There are no landmarks, no way to find each other."
Janette reached out, and gripped his arm. She could feel the life force in him, the taunt strength, the power. Her control slipped even further. "I will find you," she said fiercely. "Be here, and I will find you."
The gatekeeper was a very happy man. Night after night, the rich, foolish Frank had paid him a gold coin to let him slip outside the gates of the city, and to let him back in just as dawn was breaking. He did not know what the golden-haired Crusader did for so many hours out in the sands, and he did not care. For the first time in over a century, the European invasion of his homeland did not mean bloodshed for his people, and he was getting rich. Allah was kind. Life was good.
Janette knew that what she was doing was madness. Every night, she met the young mortal in the desert, in a world separated from both hers and his by more than merely miles. They talked endlessly, arguing Aristotle and Anselm, Ovid and Abelard. Janette dredged the old *chansons de geste* of her childhood out of her memory and sang them to Nicholas, her voice clear and pure in its solitary tones. In response, Nicholas brought his lute and sang her the explicitly passionate verses of the *court d'amour*, his fingers delicate and sure on the strings of the instrument, his eyes only leaving hers to dwell on her lips, her breasts.
They never touched.
Janette made very sure of that. Every night, the desire rose higher in her, and she fought to push it aside. Every night, she could see a matching desire in Nicholas, and had no way to defend herself against it. She wanted to feel his mouth on hers, his hands, his body. She wanted his blood and his soul, the bloodlust indistinguishable from the sexual passion.
LaCroix knew. She could keep nothing from him. If nothing else, his heightened senses had caught the scent of him on her skin, even though they
never touched, a scent so faint that she barely could register it after she left the desert. But LaCroix was more than one thousand years old; his power was considerably greater than hers.
Every night, just before dawn, she left Nicholas and returned to the city, to LaCroix. She had her own room in the house LaCroix had rented, to keep her belongings in, but he insisted that she sleep in the same room as he. After a brief struggle, she gave in , as she always did to his wishes.
The room was nearly barren, stone walls unadorned by tapestries, the flagstones bare of rushes. The single window was sealed with a heavy wooden shutter that allowed not a single beam of the sun through. The only furniture was the beautiful, elaborately carved bed of Arabic workmanship that LaCroix had procured for her rest, and the narrow, hard pallet that he lay on, lying against the opposite wall.
Janette woke shortly before sunset. LaCroix still slept on his pallet across the room; rising, she crossed its length to look at him. What did he think when he looked at her? Was she but another one of his beautiful treasures, to look at, to touch, to value but never to open himself to. She knew he admired her spirit, encouraged her independence--so long as it did not break the bonds that tied her to him. And of what use was independence when it was dependent on another person allowing you it?
Without stirring, without even opening his eyes, LaCroix asked, "What do you want, Janette?"
"Why did you make me? Why did you bring me across?" she asked quietly, voicing questions that she had not dared in two hundred years.
LaCroix rose and walked to the window, opening a shutter to let in a crimson stream of light from the setting sun. Standing in the shadows to one side, he said, "Because I wished to. Because I loved your beauty, your courage, the fierce glare in your eyes. Because I knew at heart, you were a creature like me. Indomitable."
"Indomitable," Janette repeated. She moved forward until she hovered just at the edge of the pool of light on the floor. "Indomitable--by everyone but you?"
LaCroix snapped the shutter closed, and turned back to her. "It is the nature of the relationship between a master and a protegee."
"How can you love someone whom you control?" she whispered, shaking her head.
LaCroix turned to her, the faintest of smiles touching his mouth. "Ah, ma chere, it is very easy to love what you possess. It is, however, very hard for the possessed to feel the same about its possessor."
There was no sorrow in his voice. He did not want her love, not the way she once thought he had. He wanted her obedience, her loyalty, her company. He wanted her to be his eternal daughter, eternal companion. In return he had given her protection, riches, power--immortality. Who would willingly give up those gifts?
Janette could say nothing. Turning away, she went to the door. The sun was sinking; night would fall soon. She needed to go to her room, dress herself, anoint her body with perfume before she met Nicholas. She needed to feed.
"Janette." The lazy voice from behind stopped her abruptly. She refused to turn around, to acknowledge LaCroix as he continued. "Your young lover is going to die, you know: at your hands, of a battle wound turned putrid, of a fever, of old age. You love him, do you not?" Janette didn't answer; LaCroix went on as if she had. "Why do you not bring him across, offer him our eternity... an eternity of your love?"
After a long moment, Janette said merely, "I thirst." She didn't know if it was in avoidance or answer to his question.
"Then, ma protegee, go feed." And she didn't know if he meant the hungers of her body or of her heart.
Or even if there was any difference between the two.
Silent as a wraith, she left the room.
For the first time, Nicholas was left waiting for her. Every other night, she found him--he knew not how--among the dunes within minutes.
But when she did come to him that night, she was hours late and without the mask of impenetrable calm that had always shielded her before. Her cheeks were, for the first time, slightly flushed, a delicate color that only made her more beautiful.
Nicholas forced his nails into his palms. forced his desire down into a dark place. For whatever reason, she had made it clear that such advances would not be welcome. And he had been so completely under her spell that he had not pressed her for reasons, had asked no questions. Not who she was, where she was from...
If she were married...
It was this question that tormented him. He wanted her. Forever. And she was his, body and soul.
"Nicholas," she said quietly, her lilting Parisian accent making music of his name. "I cannot see you again."
The words broke his tenuous control and he grabbed her, fingers sinking deep into the rich silk of her gown to the cool flesh beneath. "No," he gritted between his teeth. "You are mine!"
He would have let her go at a word from her. They both knew that. Instead, she curved her arms until they cupped his, her hands lightly clasping his shoulders. His grip relaxed, hers slid around his neck, and suddenly they were in each others arms, mouths seeking, finding, until Nicholas was dizzy with her taste, her scent. In a moment, he would drag her down into the sand and--
At that moment, Janette broke away, stumbling back several steps. "Why?" Nicholas asked her hoarsely. "Are you wed?"
"No," Janette whispered. She shook her head as if to underline her emphatic refusal and said, "No, I am not married," in a fierce voice.
He stepped toward her, and she held him off with an upraised hand, in an eerie imitation of the first night they met. "I love you," he said quietly, absolutely. Janette shook her head again, but he persisted. "I love you!" he told her intently. "Marry me. Be my wife. Be mine--"
Tempted beyond anything she had ever known, she cried out in desperation, "You do not know what I am!"
Nicholas moved closer, and she was utterly without the will to move away. He did not kiss her, but instead cradled her face in his rough warrior's hands. Gently, with the reverence that had destroyed her defenses, he threaded his fingers through her hair. "You are," he told her, "the woman I love. The woman I will love forever. Nothing else is important."
Janette closed her eyes and shuddered, but managed to hold back the blood-tinted tears that would have proved him wrong. She rose on her tip-toes and brushed his lips with hers. Then she opened her eyes, and looked into his summer sky blue ones for the last time. "Sleep, Nicholas. Sleep and wake with the morning."
She did not have the strength to tell him to forget her.
Janette knew that she had no hope of keeping the events of this past night hidden from LaCroix. He knew the moment she stepping into their house hours before dawn. Rising from his chair by the window, he crossed to where she stood by the door, wordlessly questioning.
"I sent him away," she said. She raised her head to look her maker in the eye and spat, "I sent him away!"
LaCroix's expression did not change. "Why, Janette?" he asked with unexpected gentleness.
She moved away from him, pacing the floor so that her long cloak swept the rushes, gesturing with odd, jerky movements. "He is a Crusader, a soldier of Christ, and I am everything he fights against. He is a creature of light," she insisted, as though LaCroix had said something in objection, "and I am a creature of the darkness." She stopped her pacing abruptly and turned to face him. "I know what I am. I revel in it. But it does not change the fact that we are two different things!"
"All right, Janette." He brushed her hair lightly with a tender hand. After a moment, he said, "I'm bored with Jerusalem. All these Crusaders do is talk endlessly. What do you say, Janette? Shall we leave? We could go to Paris."
Janette nodded, drained. It would be a relief to leave the Holy Land, to go to the city that after all these years remained her home. "It's nearly dawn," she murmured. "We should sleep."
LaCroix dropped his hand onto her shoulder and they walked to the door of their shared bedchamber. But a faint pressure stopped her. "But think, Janette, just think. Could he have loved you so dearly if he were completely a child of the light?"
Janette closed her eyes and turned away.
After a week of waiting in the desert, Nicholas had to accept the truth of it. Janette was gone, and he had no way of finding her. She had disappeared into the night as though she had never existed. The thought produced a murderous rage. She was gone.
Nicholas looked down at the lute in his hands. He had been composing a song for her, like any foolish love-struck troubadour yearning for his unreachable lady. Maddened, he swung the lute against the wall, and tossed the shattered remains onto the fire.
He went directly to Frederick's rooms. The emperor was dictating a letter to his general in Germany, where Frederick's uncle was leading a rebellion. Nicholas paced in the antechamber until Frederick was finished and sent the clerk away. "Well, Nicholas. I have not seen much of you in the past few weeks. What can I do for you?"
Nicholas said without preamble, "I'm leaving Jerusalem."
Frederick leaned back in his chair, resting his elbows on the arms and his chin of steepled hands. "Where will you go?"
"Toulouse." Frederick made a quick motion, as though to cut Nicholas off, but Nicholas ignored him and continued. "I've heard that there is much land waiting to be won there."
"And much blood to be shed," Frederick murmured. "Tell me, Nicholas--do you go on the Pope's crusade to harry the heretics, or to make your fortune?" Nicholas said nothing. "Ah, I see. You go to fight, to spill blood, to rage."
"I must leave here," Nicholas said violently. "I cannot stay. I cannot!"
Frederick rose, grasped his friend's forearm in a gesture of affection and farewell. "I understand, my friend. Only too well. Go with God, Nicholas."
****END PART ONE****