Balian stood with his hands on his hips, gazing at him. “I’m glad you’re back, Hugh, but I’m not sure I’m ready to face our father just yet. I’m still too furious with him! Do you know what he did?”
“Well, not exactly. Baldwin said you’re in trouble for seducing the seneschal’s daughter.”
“He confronted me in front of her father! He didn’t give me a chance to tell my side of the story! Just insulted me then and there—hit me—and sent me away!”
“What did he hit you for?” Hugh asked startled.
“For reminding him that our grandparents had an illicit affair before their marriage and that Aunt Helvis was conceived out of wedlock.”
Hugh gasped. “You didn’t!” But then he shook his head in admiration and bemusement at his brother’s audacity. He could remember the day the boys had accidentally stumbled over their aunt’s baptismal records and Baldwin had said, “What? May 1178? But—”
Balian had jumped in at once. “Wait, Father always claimed they were allowed to marry because of our grandfather’s prowess at Montgisard!”
“That was in November 1177,” Hugh had added to show he knew. They had all looked at each other, counting the months mentally, and then burst out laughing together. “He seduced a dowager queen!” They had chortled in delight. It had made their “perfect” grandfather so much more likable.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have said it,” Balian admitted, “but he cornered me—confronted me with Denise’s pregnancy in front of her father. If he’d talked to me in private first, I could have told him how she came into my room and literally locked the door behind her before she started stripping. Christ! No man could withstand temptation like that! My confessor didn’t have any trouble absolving me! If Father had given me a chance to explain, I could have made him understand!”
“Hm,” Hugh answered ambiguously.
Balian frowned at him. “Don’t tell me you would have sent her away!”
“Hell, no! I wish she had come to me! Honestly. I’ve always been a little attracted to her. She’s got something, you know, something that makes my lower body parts get all excited.”
Balian laughed at that, and the laugh echoed in the vault of the narrow church.
“But, you see,” Hugh spoke up more soberly as the echoes died away, “Father would have turned her away, even though he’s desperately lonely.” Hugh’s voice was deep with sympathy.
That too seemed to get magnified in the church, giving Balian pause. He stopped to reflect on his father for a moment and when he spoke it was with reluctant empathy. “He needs a lady,” Balian admitted. “I don’t understand why he never married again after our mother died. It’s been six years.”
“You really don’t know why?” Hugh asked surprised, and then answered himself, “No, I suppose as his heir, you’ve never thought about it.”
“What do you mean?”
Hugh shrugged, “Just that, as he told me once, he can’t risk having more sons. He says it’s going to be hard enough providing for the five of us.”
Balian looked at his brother dumbfounded. It was true, he had never thought about it. Beirut was a rich inheritance, but it went to the first born and heir, Balian himself. The lordship of Arsuf came from their mother and would presumably go to Baldwin—unless their father chose to give him their holdings on Cyprus and keep Arsur for Hugh. But they had two more brothers: Johnny and Guy, now aged ten and eight respectively. If they lived to adulthood, they would have to make their way in the world as landless knights.
“He had five sons by his first wife too, you know,” Hugh said into the stillness and chill of the little church. “They all died as infants. Then he had five sons by mother. So it’s only natural that he fears he’ll sire more sons if he marries again. Only he’s got neither land nor titles left to give Johnny and Guy as it is, let alone any new sons.”
“He could break up our Cypriot estates,” Balian suggested exasperated. “Having a lady would make him less judgmental and prudish!”
“Oh, come on, Bal! He’s not a prude. He doesn’t object to you having fun. It’s the scandal he detests. He wants the Ibelin name to be above reproach. You and I know Denise is a bit of a tart. Still, because of her father’s position of trust, a liaison with her is viewed as dishonorable.”
“I didn’t sleep with her more than a dozen times!” Balian protested. “That’s hardly a liaison.”
“But a bit more than a single night too. I don’t think you should mention that to father.”
Balian snorted ambiguously.
“Shall we go back now? I’m getting cold.”
Balian, having known where he was going when he set out, was wearing a wolf-lined leather cloak; Hugh was in nothing but his leather gambeson and a comparatively light wool cloak.
Balian drew a deep breath. “He sent for me?”
“Yes, and not to give you a piece of his mind either. In fact, he seemed quite anxious to make up with you. He was visibly distressed to discover you were nowhere in the castle.”
Balian said nothing, but he looked down at his signet ring, thinking of his father.
“The seneschal didn’t look very happy either, I must say. He was busy preparing to send Denise off to Tyre, and he was very short-tempered. Whatever father said to him after you left wasn’t to his liking.”
Balian raised his eyebrows, but then nodded and, taking Hugh’s arm, led them back out of the church into the fading winter afternoon. At least the rain had stopped. He untied his grazing palfrey, as did Hugh, and they mounted.
As they started along the narrow rocky trail that led back down to the shore, Balian asked, “So what is the news from Brindisi that brought you back here when you could have spent the whole winter enjoying yourself in Sicily?”
“You aren’t going to believe it: no sooner had Frederick Hohenstaufen married Yolanda than he demanded all the barons who had accompanied her to do homage to him as King of Jerusalem.”
“I thought the agreement was for John de Brienne to remain king for the rest of his life?” Balian asked puzzled.
“That’s what we all thought—first and foremost King John himself, the Pope and the Master of the Teutonic Knights, who had negotiated the marriage contract! There was a terrible scene. The Teutonic Master was almost as furious as King John, and he kept admonishing the Emperor that he was disgracing him. King John, however, was threatening outright war. It didn’t help that, according to Yolanda’s women, Fredrick spent his wedding night in the harem with one of his slaves, leaving his little bride to cry herself to sleep.”
“What?!” Balian could hardly believe his ears. “Are you sure about that?”
“As sure as anyone can be who wasn’t in the bedchamber! Let’s put it this way, Frederick really does have a harem tract in the palace at Palermo, complete with eunuchs as servants and a troop of Muslim guards. No one is allowed inside, of course, but I was told by men in his household that he has twenty-three harem slaves locked up in there. The queen’s apartments are directly adjacent to the harem and guarded by the same troop of Muslim soldiers.”
“That’s unchristian!” Balian protested indignantly.
“It is rather, but Father’s more upset about the fact that Frederick has broken his agreement with Brienne. We all know Father doesn’t like Brienne much, but for him, a contract is a contract, and a man, much less a lord, is bound by his word. He’s shaken by the fact that the greatest Christian monarch on earth is indifferent to his own signed promises.”
Balian nodded. He agreed with his father on this. Then he thought to ask, “Did any of the lords of Jerusalem take the oath of homage?”
“They all did! Eudes de Montbéliard first and foremost, but Sidon too.”
“What about you?”
“I didn’t want to make a scene,” the affable Hugh admitted, rationalizing. “Besides, my oath doesn’t count for much. I’m just a young, landless knight. I thought that if father didn’t like what I did, he could always disown me.” Hugh shrugged and laughed lightly as he spoke, evidently not so certain of himself after all.
“He’d never do that, Hugh,” Balian remarked with a wan smile. “He loves you.”
“Yes, and you too, Balian. You do know that, don’t you? If he’s hard on you, it’s because he wants so much for you.”
“Yes, I know,” Balian admitted with a deep sigh. “Nor do I want to disappoint him. Yet sometimes I wish he’d let me be me rather than trying to force me into the image of our grandfather—or rather the image of our grandfather that he carries around in his head.”
Hugh nodded sympathetically. He had often been thankful he was neither the firstborn nor named Balian. He had learned early that he could get away with more than Balian could. His misadventures were more likely to be met by a laugh than a rebuke.
They had reached a small sandy beach at the head of a cove and now started climbing the steep, stony path that led up to the plain above. Darkness was falling fast, and the horses were eager for their feed and the warmth of the barn. They strained up the slope, their riders standing in the stirrups to help them. As they reached the top, Hugh drew up beside his brother. “Balian?”
“In your shoes, I’d try to stay away from women for a bit.”
Balian just laughed and put his heels to his horse to start racing for home.
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