A love affair in 13th-century France, a long-held family secret, and a sisterís loyalty are at the heart of this novel. Alais Capet resides in her brotherís court in Paris awaiting the return of her lover, William of Caen, Grand Master of the Knights Templar in England, who is completing a special mission for the pope.
King Philippe Auguste of France values his sisterís counsel, especially with the current unrest in the south of his kingdom where a religious sect has gained a great following. The Cathars refer to themselves as Good Christians or Good Men and teach Godís duality, light and dark, a simple form of worship that eschews the more elaborate religious trappings of Rome. The Cathars reject organization and refuse to sell indulgences or quest for gold, wandering preachers visiting their flock and moving from place to place.
As William of Caen approaches the residence of the French king and Alais Capet, he is accompanied by a delegate from Rome, Abbe Amaud Amaury. Amaury is a religious fanatic, the first wave of the impending Inquisition and instigator of the first religious war between Christian and Christian that will be known as the Albigensian Crusade.
Philippe resists the popeís request for troops, sensing the burning religious fervor that propels Amauryís mission. While Alais cautions her brother to remain neutral, Philippeís own chief minister is engaged in treachery, part of a larger plan to enforce Romeís dominion over the southern Cathars.
As part of the kingís inner circle, Alais cannot help but be involved, and soon concerns of a more critical nature send her scurrying to the south: a chalice in the kingís keeping is stolen, a man murdered, and a young knight from Williamís entourage kidnapped. Regardless of personal peril, Alais is determined to find the knight, aid her brother in the south and avoid the popeís delegate, who will stop at nothing to satisfy his religious mission.
Although this is a complex historical period, much of the action centers on the activities of a princess with a personal interest in her brotherís affairs, as well as a secret that has burdened her for years. Set against the religious unrest, the burgeoning new sect and the popeís determination to extinguish heresy in any form, Alaisí struggles seem insignificant but are reflective of the many lives turned upside-down by the coming religious war, the south filled with tension and threat. Cast into the middle of the brewing contretemps, Alais is singular in purpose.
This novel was slow to engage my imagination, the prose somewhat lacking in emotion, but as events accelerated, I found myself compelled to learn of Alaisí fate and the resolution of her difficulties. Ultimately the author creates a contrast of good and evil, where a fanatical priest finds an excuse to wreak havoc in the name of God, wielding a bloody sword with no compassion for the innocent.