...At sunset, Philippe climbed back down, shaking from exhaustion and shivering from the sudden evening chill on his sweat-damp skin. Father Gervais had been right about taking a day’s respite from the scaffold, but he wasn’t about to tell the old priest that. He stripped off the apron and pulled his tunic back over his head, the weight of wool heavenly against his skin. Too tired to bother with the hose, he limped barefoot inside to put away his bag.
Tired as he was, he found his gaze drawn down the nave toward the altar. The man in the scarlet cloak knelt farther in this time, leaning against one of the huge columnar bundles at the meeting of nave and transept. He had managed an appearance of peace the previous evening, but now he projected only abject misery. His back bowed, he seemed to have his face buried in his hands. Father Gervais had said he had never seen the man’s face. Perhaps it was disfigured, a result of accident or pox or plague.
Even from a distance, Philippe thought he saw the broad shoulders shaking.
With a frown, Philippe approached cautiously. He tried to remind himself that this was none of his business. But how could he simply walk by a man in such obvious pain?
“Monsieur?” He reached out to touch the man’s shoulder, fingers hesitating over the fine cloth. “Are you well, monsieur? Do you need help?”
The soft baritone that answered him crackled with icy rage, “Leave me be, païsant. My affairs are none of yours.”
Philippe withdrew his hand but refused to retreat. “I’m no country farmer, monsieur, but a painter working here. You seemed in distress. It only seemed right to offer assistance.”
The head turned, giving Philippe a hint of a strong, straight nose. Eyes glinted from deep within the hood’s cowl, flicking up and down his frame. “And how would a crippled painter help? Go away. There is no assistance the likes of you could offer me.”
The cold dismissal stung. Would you discount me so quickly if I were a whole man? “As you wish, monsieur.”
He nearly added that the refusal need not have been so rude, but such things were best not said to noblemen. With a deft turn around his crutch, he moved back up the nave and left the surly man alone in the confines of his beautiful scarlet cloak. Someone with such fine clothes surely has funds aplenty, and someone with such wealth can’t truly understand suffering. He’s probably never gone without a meal or a roof. Most likely sulking over some woman who won’t have him.
Philippe shook his head to banish such unkind thoughts. Who but the man himself knew the nature and depth of his suffering? And if it was merely love gone wrong, what of it? Love could be crueler than any winter wind, cut sharper than the worst hunger pangs. Especially certain kinds of love…
He hobbled down the stairs under the cathedral’s south tower to store his tools. Construction had begun on the tower but funds ebbed and flowed for the project. At the moment, a monetary drought was in progress. The tower had only reached the level of the gallery of kings, but someday there would be two completed towers, soaring and magnificent, to flank the glorious rose window.
As he climbed back up the winding stair, he heard booted footsteps on the stone steps above. Up the boots went, toward the top of the unfinished tower. When he turned onto the landing of the main floor, he caught a flash of scarlet before it vanished up the curve of staircase.
He could imagine only one purpose for which a man might venture up an unfinished tower after dark. Ignoring the pain in his leg, he hurried after, his heart pounding, hoping against all sane reason that he would not be too late...