Mirrum gave back an answering smile. The 'illustrious and most holy King Baldwin V' looked much happier freed of the confining coronation finery – although he seemed to have hopped straight out of bed in his nightshirt the minute he was put to bed. His new attendants would be led a merry dance, whoever they were. Little Prince Perseus had a will of his own and, from his rather spirited attempts to be imperious with the Bishop of Jerusalem, no little stock of courage, either. Baldwin stuck his tongue out at her, grinning with an impish manner that was anything but kingly. It had been a long and trying day, after all, and solemnity and ceremony had ruled most of it.
'Maman gave me the garden, you see?' Prince Perseus looked around it with an air of ludicrously smug ownership. 'I can play here whenever I want, or have lessons – if I want them.'
'If you want them?'
'Only if I want them.' Baldwin insisted, looking up at her, proudly. 'Kings don't have lessons.'
'I think, my king, your maman may think otherwise.'
'Oh.' Perseus' face fell. 'I don't mind if it's Maman, though. Maman's clever.' He added by way of self-consolation, tugging at Mirrum's hand. 'Come and play, Mirrum! Maman gave me a wooden lion and he roars when you pull a string – look! I want to play Sir Yvain, and now I have a real actual lion...'
'Aren't you a little tired?' Mirrum said quietly, looking at Baldwin's small flushed face. For all his determined rushing about, the little child-king's footsteps were somewhat wavering – the last burst of excited energy before total exhaustion, if Mirrum was any judge.
'No! I'm not tired!' Baldwin protested, crossly, gathering up his treasured toy in both arms. The lion gaped its wooden maw at Mirrum, string dangling. 'I want to play! I want to, it's my garden! I'm allowed, now!'
Mirrum let herself be dragged over to the fountain – but she seated herself firmly on the lip of the basin and began humming abstractedly one of the gentler airs the musicians had played earlier. She had seen little Baldwin stubbornly determined to keep awake before; in a moment he would give in, and soon –
She had been right. Baldwin had flopped down next to the fountain, resting one small fair-haired head against her knee, though he still clasped the prized wooden lion fiercely to his thin chest.
'I don't want to do that again,' he said drowsily. 'I don't have to be crowned again, do I, Mirrum? Not another day?'
'What? No, no,' Mirrum said gently, stroking the tousled mop of hair. 'You don't have to be crowned again.'
'Because I did awf'lly well, just as Maman said...' Baldwin yawned, hugely, before imperiously stretching out his arms. 'Carry me to bed, Mirrum!'
'I think,' Mirrum said tartly – although she shifted the weight of the small boy easily enough as he clambered into her lap– 'I think, that your gracious majesty is old enough to get into bed by himself. Don't you?'
'Please?' Baldwin's small flaxen head nodded heavily against her shoulder, eyelids screwed shut in a gauche child's imitation of sleep. He wasn't really as tired as he was pretending to be, Mirrum guessed shrewdly – but there was no Maman to rock him to sleep or sing him soft French airs whilst the banquet still went on, long into the early hours of the night. The poor little fledgling Baldwin V wanted comfort, which he hadn't found – and the thought of prince Perseus sat up alone in echoing royal apartments whilst his attendants feasted on the scraps in the kitchens made Mirrum soften like melted wax.
'Come on then,' she said softly, lifting him up. 'Up we go...'
'Up and up and up and up...' Baldwin said sleepily, in a sing-song voice. 'Up and up and –'
There was a wooden clunk as the lion nearly dropped out of his loosened grasp. Mirrum caught it nimbly, just in time –
Only to take a shocked indrawn breath at what she saw as she looked downwards.
'Prince Perseus! What have you done to yourself?!'
The little prince's half-open palm was marked by a hideous blackened burn, the edges blistered and glistening unpleasantly.
'That?' Baldwin said blankly, looking down almost absently at it. 'I didn't cry,' he said, proudly.
'Did the Lord Bishop punish you?!'
'Him?' Baldwin sounded scornful. 'As though he could!' He dug his heels in a little, as though Mirrum were a stubborn pony. 'I want to go to bed, Mirrum.'
'Not until your hand is salved!' Mirrum snapped. 'Has your mother even seen that? Have you been hiding it?'
Baldwin hid his face in the silk of Mirrum's gown, nothing but an errant tuft of fair hair peeking out. 'She'd have been cross,' he said, in a muffled voice. 'And it was the ceremony today...'
Mirrum sighed, shifting her grip a little.
'We'll salve that,' she said firmly. 'Before you go to bed, and it is just possible, mark you, that your Maman will not think to ask if she sees it...'
Baldwin went limp with relief.
'Th'nk you,' he said indistinctly, as Mirrum tottered unsteadily up the stairs towards his rooms. 'My nurse would have told Maman...'
'Your nurse would have been right,' Mirrum said absently, crossing the echoing floor. It was as she thought. Baldwin's new, splendid apartments were as empty as the grave, even the candles almost guttering out. She felt a pang of righteous indignation on the poor little king's part. She should speak to Sybilla about it. No matter what the feasting involved, no servant should have abandoned their young child-king for the promise of good Rhenish wine.
'Does she still keep her chest of salves beneath the window here? Yes? All right then, 'Mirrum commanded. 'Into bed with you, quick as lightning!'
Baldwin hopped nimbly beneath his trailing coverlet as Mirrum found a pot of sharp-smelling green paste, her nose wrinkling. Baldwin's nurse might be a sharp-elbowed sour specimen of woman, but she had tended a score of noble lordlings in her time, and she certainly knew her remedies for the various scrapes a small boy would stumble into, given the chance. And there was plenty of clean linen scraps...
How did you poultice? Mirrum hadn't had much practice, but she generously spread a little of the paste over the bandage as though slapping butter on bread, before bandaging the cooling stuff around Baldwin's blistered palm. She had expected it to sting, but little Prince Perseus watched with interested detachment; mildly curious, but scarcely in pain at all. Probably just as well, Mirrum thought tiredly to herself. He'd sleep the better without it...
'There,' she said, bringing the blanket a little closer over his thin shoulders. 'Sleep now. I'll put in a fresh candle, to burn until you're asleep...'
She shivered, suddenly. There was a cold breeze blowing through the window, in spite of the heat and noise from below...
And, unbidden, another image flashed before Mirrum's weary eyes – one that made her stop dead in her tracks and cast an anxious look back over her shoulder at that new child-king, curled up like a baby field-mouse in his covers. A swaying, dusty journey through the barren wastes near Kerak, on horseback, timidly clutching a ripped length of sleeve.
This wasn't the first hand of a king she'd tended, was it?
Mirrum had intended to go back to her own rooms once he was asleep, to rest from her own fatigue. But that uncanny thought made her sit down, suddenly, on the low stool near Baldwin's small bed, and anxiously watch the small pale face -until the candle spat hot wax on her hand and she started, setting it down abruptly on the table.
'Goodnight,' she called back, gently. Baldwin's pale golden eyelashes fluttered a little - but nothing more.
He was already fast asleep.
Mirrum wondered, even as she curled up beneath her new coverlet in her new rooms, whether she should have seen Sybilla about it. But Sybilla would be in no mood to have heard her querulous concerns, as she had learnt well from watching Ammet and Sybilla's frequent furious outbursts. Especially tonight, of all nights. Cast doubt on the golden promise of the coronation?
It was better, Mirrum decided sleepily, far better to leave it to the morning, and sharper wits. There were new rules to the game of being a lady of property that had not applied to her as a maid. Besides - whether she liked the new-minted Lady Miriam of Montferrand or not, it was impossible to deny that her bed was very warm, and very soft...
Mirrum turned over with a contented sigh. If she closed her eyes, she could almost imagine the shape of the pillow was Tiberias' shoulder again...
Perhaps the wilting garlands and browning greenery had let the memory of Dame Juliana's soft green fields and cold breezes slip in; for, to Mirrum's surprise, her dreams that night were not of the featureless forest she had scampered from so often – but of the rank smell of damp grass. The quiet ripple of a millpond, dark-green, mysterious and stagnant. A damp, mild English summer – with berries sharp spots of colour in the trees, and fruit ripening...
It was the crude picture in Dame Juliana's breviary of the Holy Land; a verdant Eden, brought to life. She was walking in a landscape of painted ink and gold-leaf, but with all the sounds and smells of home that she remembered so well...
Why wasn't she happy, then? Mirrum wondered uneasily, even in her dream. There seemed to be something not quite...right about it. It was wrong when she looked at it, somehow – sliding away like a stone thrown in water. This wasn't how it should be...
She reached out a hand to the too-bright cherries, hanging from a branch –
And black, stinking things broke off in her hand, oozing a putrid liquid that made her snatch away her hand in disgust. The grass became a seething mass of grave-worms writhing vilely beneath her feet. She stumbled, and with horror realised she was tumbling towards them, hands outstretched.
'Sweet Virgin, no!'
Mirrum woke in a fright, panting for breath.
Alix's distinctly drowsy voice rose from the floor, where her pallet was stretched across the chamber door.
All was quiet. There were no grave-worms – simply sweat-drenched folds of her shift sticking to her in the heat of the night. No rotting berries, either. Just the clammy palms of her hands, folded into tight fists.
'I- nothing,' Mirrum said hastily. 'A dream. It's over, now.'
She flung herself back against the pillow, pressing her burning face against the cool edge of the linen. Was it over?
Mirrum had not had a dream so vivid since the old dream of the bear, hunting her through the forest – and even she could read that one clearly; her own, scarcely acknowledged feelings for the Lord Tiberias, pushing their way to the fore.
Could it be the Physician trying to tell her something, she wondered, uneasily. She had not been able to wish him into existence since she had seen him in the uncertain days before the coronation. Perhaps the dead could warn through dreams and portents, after all?
Mirrum screwed up her eyes in the grey darkness – trying to will the Physician into being. Are you there? She asked, inside her head. Dear King, was that you?
A pause. But only silence answered her. No grey-blue eyes swirled into existence, no kindly, gentle face.
Perhaps it was just that; a dream, after all.
Mirrum turned over, already watching the moonlight falling across one painted wall blur as her eyes closed again, already half-asleep.
When she woke in the morning, she had forgotten about it altogether. Bad dreams rarely linger long when we are happy – and Mirrum was happy; happier than she had dared to believe possible as a colourless byre girl from Malmesbury.
Nonetheless, no day had ever seemed so long, or so tiresome – or so dull. She had tried to keep herself busy; she had begun repairing some of the faded embroidery of the hangings – reviving broken or trailing threads with new woollen stitches. Alix, deft - and a little unscrupulous, as always – had purloined some lady's silks from somewhere for Mirrum to work with. She strongly suspected Pasque de Rivera would be missing a few colours when she came next to her tapestry – but Alix had solemnly declared that they wouldn't be missed - and it made the day fly by a little faster. It brought the evening with Tiberias a little closer...
Mirrum's cheeks coloured as she bent her head over her needlework, fingers trembling slightly. She shouldn't be thinking of that. The dutiful side of Mirrum protested against the surge of queasy excitement (and not a little trepidation) that came from thinking too much.
'Are you well, madam?' Alix had been watching Mirrum narrowly across the room, her own sewing idle in her lap. 'Your face is flushed; do you feel sick?'
'No,' Mirrum said quickly, pulling her thread severely taut. 'I'm well. I'm very well – agh!'
She had jabbed the sharp bone needle into her thumb without looking.
'Perhaps you need a change of air,' Alix suggested, as Mirrum sucked ruefully at her injured thumb. 'You've not stirred all day, and you dined heavily yesterday...' She paused, carefully.
'Or... perhaps you need quiet today?'
Mirrum should have known from her own experience that little escapes a waiting maid. She looked up from her lap to see Alix looking at her with a gaze that said she knew exactly what made her mistress fidget in her chair and pluck fretfully at her embroidery.
'I-' Mirrum opened her mouth to protest, utter a heated denial – only one look at her maid's knowing glance made her stop short. It was stupid to lie. And there wasn't contempt in Alix's eyes. If anything, there was actually a little understanding.
'I-' Mirrum lowered her eyes.
'You can ask,' Alix said matter-of-factly. 'I wasn't lady to Pasque de Rivera for nothing, I can tell you. I know – aha, enough.' She eyed Mirrum cautiously. 'You understand how it works?'
Mirrum's face went crimson.
''nk so,' she muttered, wishing the floor would swallow her up.
'My lady?' Alix leant forward, peering at her face
'I think so!' Mirrum said, more loudly. 'I've read... I've read tales! Some of the chronicles...'
Indeed, some books (often written by monks to boot) had provided some rather lewd descriptions of precisely what carnalities to avoid. Mirrum had emerged with the uneasy impression that most of the writers were either much like the Lord Patriarch - or sincerely wished they were. But that seemed nothing to do with her own feelings for Raymond of Tripoli. It sounded vaguely nauseous, from what Mirrum had discovered, like raw meat spoiling under a hot sun.
But this disclosure seemed to restore Alix's confidence in her mistress' intellect; she looked visibly relieved. 'You're tolerably well off, then,' she said, relaxing. 'Some maids have hardly any idea what to expect.' She eyed Mirrum narrowly. 'Are you frightened?'
'Some girls are,' Alix said soothingly. 'It's all right to admit it-'
'No,' Mirrum said hastily. 'I'm not.' She rocked back and forth, head bent over her stitching. Thinking.
Yes – there had been the painted tales; some of the more earthy romances favoured by Dame Juliana. But when Mirrum thought of love, she remembered Sybilla at Cana. She was no longer a bright, brittle creature, stretched almost to breaking point by politics and the affairs of state. She had become human. And happy , for once – yes, happy! A person who could laugh, like other women.
And Aude – Audemande de Vinceaux too, now she thought about it. Mirrum remembered that silent, playful contest of glances across the coronation banquet, the quiet brown-haired chanteuse and her flaxen-haired knight exchanging looks that spoke love.
To be scared of something that seemed so beautiful? No! If anything – Mirrum hesitated, remembering the hollow, pleading dark eyes of the dream-bear that had stalked her nights so persistently. If anything, she was a little afraid of disappointing Tiberias. What if she wasn't all he wanted? What if –
No. Mirrum thought proudly, sitting a little straighter in her chair. I'm Miriam of Montferrand now. Miriam of Montferrand is worthy.
The last flickering of little, indecisive Miriam of Malmesbury died there. Mirrum was learning the independence of a freedwoman at last.
'Thank you,' she said to Alix. 'I think I know...enough. But-' Mirrum blushed pinkly as she glanced over at the horizon. The sun was just beginning to set in a dark red sky. 'Will you – help me get ready?'
The colour of love, Mirrum decided, must be flame - for it was what Alix chose without a second thought. First, a pale shift– linen so white and fine it was not unlike wearing a soul, stitched neatly into a shape. And then, a huge open robe of thick orange velvet that trailed along the ground – more suited for an English winter than a stifling evening in Palestine. It was a peculiar burnt shade; not something Mirrum would have chosen for herself.
Alix was firm on the colour.
'It suits you,' she said decidedly, brushing a speck of invisible dust from the sleeve. 'You should see – with your hair loose, you'll look...Oh a pity you don't have a silvered glass, like the Queen Regent, my lady! You'd be able to see how well you look...'
Mirrum twisted a curl round her finger nervously, not saying a word. Her fit of nerves had got the better of her again – but she nodded, and then lifted up her finery with nail-bitten hands to go.
Alix tilted her head shrewdly to one side, eyes appraising. 'Your lord is a lucky man.' She said, bobbing into a mock-curtsey as she shut the door. 'Dream well.'
The echoing cloisters of the palace of Jerusalem had never seemed so daunting as they did that night. Truth be told, Mirrum was a little nervous at losing her way. The old games of chess and chance conversation had taken place in the official chambers of the Lord Marshal. Seeing Tiberias in the bear's den, so to speak – was something new.
She knocked, hesitantly.
'Come!' Tiberias' voice said from within. There was a sudden loud clang, as though something heavy and metallic had dropped to the floor – and muffled cursing. 'God's blood! Damn the blasted...'
Mirrum opened the door. A puddle of sticky red Anjou had pooled hopelessly on the stone flags near her bare feet. Tiberias had evidently been arranging a flagon of wine by the chairs set before the fire - and had knocked it over at her tap on the door.
The Lord of Tripoli was currently on his hands and knees, glumly picking up fragments of wine soaked blue-green glass. A goblet had smashed on the tiles.
'Damn the gaudy Venetian bauble!' he muttered. 'Don't bother to spill the small ale, oh no – spill the fine stuff all about the place, just before –'
Mirrum dodged the wine trail.
'It's not so bad,' she said, consolingly, squatting down upon a dry patch of hearthstone. 'You only spilt it on flagstones, my lord. It can be scrubbed away.'
'Ay, but...' Tiberias looked up and started, as though seeing Mirrum for the first time – orange robe pooled about her knees, long strands of pale curling hair falling loose over her face.
'My stars...' He breathed. He looked at her – a long, dark-eyed look that reminded Mirrum of the heated moments in the cloister, at the coronation feast. No trace of the amused tolerance for a pale 'child' evident in the lord of Tripoli's face now. The gaze he cast at Mirrum now was a peculiar mix of esteem, desire, and hesitant tenderness. He stayed on his knees, a grizzled old soldier paying a stunned, simple homage to youth and beauty.
'You are very beautiful.' He said simply, making no effort to rise.
Mirrum felt the heat rise to her face. She had never had to accept compliments to her beauty before – and what he had said with his eyes alone moved her more than she could say. She dodged around it, instead.
'I am sorry if I made you spill your wine -'
'Oh, that!' Tiberias waved that aside impatiently, rising to his knees with a slight wince. 'My own folly. I told my squires I could make shift for myself, and broke every piece of tableware accordingly...'
Mirrum helped him to his feet, pushing herself under his shoulder as he got up. 'You shouldn't kneel,' she said reprovingly, glancing at the right leg, which Tiberias always dragged. 'Not when-'
'Not when I am a creaky old ship, eh?' Tiberias' arm pressed Mirrum's waist gently. 'Enough of that,' he said suddenly, gesturing towards the fire. 'You are my guest.'
The Lord of Tripoli's rooms, truth be told, were almost as Spartan as a mendicant friar's. Short of a great carved bed that had probably held many a Lord of Tripoli before him, there was little enough to say this room was even a nobleman's. Bare, crumbling plaster walls, with no coverings or tapestries. A large stone fireplace that seemed in need of a good sweeping, for it sprinkled soot and ash on to the fire like a bizarre form of libation. The sole comforts in the room, such as they were, had been huddled up before the fire; two rigidly carved chairs and the unlucky side table on a worn hearthrug. There was a carefully arranged fur mantle spread over one chair. Mirrum had a sneaking suspicion Tiberias had ransacked his brains as well as his winter coffers in his efforts to put her at her ease.
Though she refused the fur mantle.
'As though I'm going to take that!' she protested, looking at the rich fur and thick lined velvet. 'I'm full warm enough – and you on your hands and knees on a cold stone floor, too!' She took Tiberias by the hand. 'Sit down, sirrah!' she said with as much sternness as she could have mustered with Prince Perseus.
The soft, dark-eyed heat rose to Tiberias' eyes again. He sat, true – but as he did he scooped Mirrum up, trailing robe and all, into a powerful embrace not entirely unlike the dark-furred bear of her dreams, her bare feet not even touching the ground.
They simply sat in a warm fug of happiness watching the flames flicker in the grate – and no longer pleasantly arguing over who had the mantle, for Tiberias had twitched it over his knees to cover Mirrum's feet.
'Just ale, after all,' he remarked ruefully, stretching one hand towards the sturdy flagon of table ale that had survived the upset. 'You'll have but a poor, miserly idea of my housekeeping...'
Mirrum snorted. 'Housekeeping?'
'You'd be surprised, lady,' Tiberias retorted mildly, enjoying the verbal jousting of wit. 'I am a man of many parts. Man cannot live on small ale alone ...'
He passed Mirrum a cup - spiced ale, warm and inviting. Mirrum sipped it gratefully, her eyebrows crinkling in sudden appreciation. Whatever Tiberias' neglect of his rooms might be, his cellars were certainly well-supplied.
Tiberias laughed at her expression. 'It's to your liking?'
'It tastes like Christmas,' Mirrum said, resting her head against his shoulder. 'Christmas at home...'
'Ah,' the lord of Tripoli said wisely. 'That will be the cloves.'
Mirrum sighed. She could hear the dull comforting beat of his heart beneath his tunic when she turned closer, feel the heat of his skin through the velvet. It was a good feeling. The chronicles hadn't prepared her for how good it felt to be held by someone kindly – not boastful, or brutish, or trying to bed a coffer of silver. Tiberias had loved her when she had nothing but ink-stained fingers and a linen shift to her name...
'Mirrum -' Tiberias said, somewhere distantly above her head.
'Mmm?' The warmth of the fire and spiced wine was lulling Mirrum into a pleasant torpor. She hadn't noticed that Tiberias' hands were quivering convulsively under her soft trusting weight, or that his eyes had glazed over with that far-away glow from the night of the banquet. It was only when he stooped his head towards her with a strange hesitancy that she saw – and understood. The dark light in Tiberias' eyes reflected back two miniature Mirrums in orange velvet as though in bud. She reached up a hand to touch his grizzled cheek.
'Yes,' she said simply.
The rest of that night seemed like a delirious fever-dream; scarcely real – a dim mirage of disturbing intensity that flickered in and out of focus.
Mirrum was only dimly aware that her mantle had slipped into a crushed puddle of orange velvet on the floor at her feet as Tiberias led her, wordless and breathing hard, towards the dark shadows of the canopied bed.
Both, man and maiden alike, were almost tripping in their sudden, urgent haste – arms clasped confusedly about the other. They could hardly stop touching each other; his hands were passing quivering over her cheek, her throat – clinging, desperate...
It was done. The bear and the maiden, running through the forest, had met at last – and the consummation was not that of predator and prey. One the contrary, the sharp, sweet joy of the embrace stole the rags of Mirrum's childhood away with the choked sighs in the dark.
There was one moment of uncertainty between the two – and one only. Tiberias had hesitated almost at the last moment, tensing to look almost fearfully into Mirrum's eyes – afraid perhaps that she would flinch away. A terror that this – all this - would suddenly melt away, and cold, undemonstrative Eschiva suddenly slide into Mirrum's place.
But Mirrum's mist-grey eyes didn't change – and her arms, clutched about him, tightened, drawing him down to her again.
'Yes,' she whispered, against his forehead. 'Oh, yes...'
And the rest of the world – and indeed, all of Jerusalem – briefly seemed to disappear.