Reynald de Châtillon was having more trouble getting his bearings than he was prepared to admit. He abhorred weakness in anyone, especially himself—and so he could not acknowledge it, but things were happening too fast, even for him. Fifteen years in a dungeon had taken much of the flesh on his bones and some of his vision. He still could not stand naked sunlight, and he instinctively sought shadows or shaded his eyes with a broad straw hat tied over his coif. He might look ridiculous, but Reynald had left vanity behind in the dungeon at Aleppo.
The wheel of fortune, he thought to himself, ought to be on his coat of arms. Born to a family of only minor consequence, he had come to Outremer in the train of Louis VII of France, but rather than returning humiliated like his master, he had risen to become Prince of Antioch by seducing a sex-starved and stupid widow. When the Greek emperor tried to cheat him, he raided the island of Cyprus and took a fortune in plunder. Unfortunately, the Emperor sent a fleet and robbed him of the fruits of his labors. After that, he’d groveled in the dirt at the Greek Emperor’s feet in a display of abject submission, but the only lesson Reynald took away from the incident was that it was foolish to attack an island without control of the sea. After that, he’d focused more on raiding his Saracen neighbors. Things had gone well until he was taken captive by Nur al-Din and landed in a dungeon.
The dungeon was deep underground, with no windows to let in daylight. Air came, dank and foul, smelling of death and decay, from long, dark tunnels that led to other cellars, or possibly beyond the walls. Reynald never knew where all the tunnels led because they were barred to him by iron grilles anchored in bedrock. Only one had seemed important: the one by which he’d entered and—fifteen years later—departed.
In the intervening years, he had lived like the rats in that dungeon by drinking the water that seeped from the walls and collected in dank pools on the stone floor, fighting over the bread and other scraps thrown to the prisoners, and shitting where he pleased. He’d seen more than one prisoner die in that dungeon, and he’d contributed to the death of others to be sure that rations never got too short—or when their ravings got on his nerves. Many men went mad in that dungeon; Reynald just became harder.
When he emerged from the dungeon, the Arabs had covered their noses and mouths at the stench of him, and even the bath slaves had made faces when ordered to clean him up. They shaved off his filthy, matted hair, oiled him, and then scraped and scrubbed him until his white, sun-starved skin was as pink as a boiled crab. They had clipped and filed his toenails and fingernails, and then dressed him in a fine white robe with a turban and handed him over to the Hospitallers.
It was only after he had been delivered to the Hospitaller castle of Crak des Chevaliers that Châtillon learned Baldwin III was dead; that was a shock. The second shock was hearing that Amalric, his brother and heir, was also dead. The third shock had been the worst: learning that Amalric’s heir, Baldwin IV, was a boy suffering from leprosy. Then again, if the king was weak, that surely opened up unusual opportunities for men like himself….
Meanwhile, however, Châtillon might have been released from the dungeon in Aleppo, but he was welcome nowhere. The Greek Emperor had accepted his groveling years before but had not forgiven the ravaging of Cyprus. In Antioch, his wife was dead, and his stepson was in control; for some reason, the boy blamed his stepfather for plundering his coffers. The Count of Tripoli, meanwhile, had banned Châtillon outright from his territories, while going to Jerusalem meant paying homage to a leper. Châtillon cringed at the thought.
Out of nowhere, a young knight, Henri de Brie, appeared and suggested he go to Oultrejourdain. “What does the younger Toron want with me?” Châtillon growled at the young knight, suspicious of everyone and everything.
“The younger Toron, my lord?” Brie answered, confused.
“Yes, he’s lord of Oultrejourdain, isn’t he?”
“No, my lord. Young Humphrey is only a boy of nine, and he lives with his grandfather ever since his father died in a hunting accident shortly after his birth. My lady of Oultrejourdain then married Sir Miles Plancy.”
“Ah, good man, Plancy. So, he’s the one who’s sent for me.”
“Ah, no, my lord. Sir Miles was stabbed in the streets of Jerusalem this past summer.”
“So, who the hell has sent for me?” Châtillon couldn’t keep the exasperation out of his voice. He was finding it very difficult to come to terms with all of these changes.
“It’s Stephanie de Milly, who has requested your presence.”
“Stephanie de Milly?” Châtillon scratched in the dark corners of his benumbed memory. “She wasn’t much to look at, if I recall rightly.”
“She is not a conventional beauty, my lord,” Brie conceded. “But she has other qualities.”
“Yes, that’s for damned sure! She’s a bloody heiress!” Then, noticing the shocked look on Brie’s face, he reminded the boy, “I haven’t been in polite society for a while, boy, and let me tell you something—chastity will get you nowhere; rutting in the right place at the right time, on the other hand, can bring you lordships.”
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