“JERUSALEM IS DYING,” THE PATRIARCH MURMURED in a low, grave voice, pitched not to carry beyond the man he was addressing. The gold-encrusted robes of office seemed too heavy for the frail old man, causing him to stand hunched over. So many rings adorned his gnarled fingers that the one with the crosses of Jerusalem was all but lost among the shine and gleam of the others.
“That’s why I came,” the man answered vigorously. The speaker, Balian d’Ibelin, was exceptionally tall, dark-haired and well tanned. He was not yet thirty and was dressed for riding in leather hose and boots, a hauberk of chain mail, and a marigold-colored cotton surcoat emblazoned with the red crosses paté of Ibelin. Beside him his slender wife, swathed in flowing white gauze to protect her from the Palestinian sun, waited anxiously. Both were coated in dust from the road.
“Yes, it is good for the High Court to gather,” the Patriarch conceded, with a glance to the other men waiting in the anteroom to the King’s chambers.
“I wish to see His Grace,” Ibelin insisted.
The Patriarch shook his head firmly. “That’s not possible. He has been shriven.”
“It’s no use, Ibelin,” Raymond, Count of Tripoli and former Regent of the realm, interposed, pushing himself off the window seat facing the inner courtyard of the royal palace. “We’ve all been denied access.” He gestured toward the men in the room, all of whom were important barons: the Constable Humphrey de Toron; the King’s maternal uncle, seneschal of the Kingdom and titular Count of Edessa, Joscelin de Courtenay; and the lords of Hebron, Caesarea, Jubail, and Caymont. “Your brother was here earlier, but he too was turned away. He was in no mood to wait.”
Ibelin did not answer. He could well imagine that his older brother, Baron of Ramla and Mirabel and known to his family as “Barry,” had not wanted to wait. Barry was not a patient man. Instead of answering, Ibelin led his wife to a large carved chest, where she could sit down and unwrap the veils that had protected her face from the burning sun. Automatically the men in the room turned to watch her, enjoying absently the beauty of her well-proportioned face. From the day she had arrived at the court of Jerusalem as the bride of the then King, Amalric I, her classical Greek beauty had aroused admiration. She was a princess of the Imperial Greek family, Maria Zoë Comnena.
Her expression now was worried. “Who has given the orders to isolate the King from his most important counselors?” she asked. “His doctors?”
“Ah,” Tripoli opened with a cynical smile, his eyes reflecting admiration for the Dowager Queen’s ability to slice to the heart of the matter. “No, not his doctors.” He paused before adding in a sour tone: “His mother.”
Queen Maria Zoë drew in her breath and held it, but her eyes glinted with indignation. There was arguably no one in the world she hated more than her first husband’s first wife, the mother of the now dying King, Agnes de Courtenay.
“My sister has only the best interests of my beloved nephew at heart,” the Count of Edessa hastened to rebuff the unspoken accusation that hung in the room. Edessa was an empty title. The county had been lost to the Saracens almost half a century earlier, and Joscelin had distinguished himself only by gorging himself both literally (on sweets) and figuratively (on the royal treasury) ever since his nephew had appointed him Seneschal of Jerusalem. He was only in his early forties, but he was both balding and flabby.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish