Two weeks later, Flanders himself arrived with a large entourage. Maria made a point of seeing that the count’s party was graciously welcomed by her household, shown suitable accommodation, and ordered a feast. Maria again dressed in her imperial robes and awaited her visitors at the high table. She did not, however, descend the steps to offer her cheek, but held out her hand with the coronation ring of Jerusalem on her finger. She accepted the bows of the visitors with gracious coolness as she invited Flanders and his vassals to join her at the high table and signaled for the feast to begin.
As the first course was carried in, Maria made small talk with Flanders, asking about his voyage to Outremer and his travels in the Holy Land. She inquired after his impression of the various churches. Had he liked the mosaics at the Church of the Nativity? What did he think of the work done at the Church of the Annunciation? Had he visited Jacob’s tomb yet?
Flanders answered her questions, sometimes at great length, yet all the while conveying a sense of impatience and discomfort. It did not help that he first ignored the fork, then tried to imitate Maria’s use of the cutlery only to abandon the fork after a few minutes and return to using his left hand to hold his meat steady as he carved. Maria said nothing but gestured for one of the pages to bring the bowl of water and towels so Flanders could wash his hands between courses.
As they neared the end of the feast, Flanders, at last, cleared his throat to announce. “My lady, I was advised to seek your advice, so I hope you don’t mind me raising a topic.”
“Of course not, my lord. How can I be of assistance?”
“I heard that the Greek delegation came to visit you not long ago.”
“You mean the Megatriarch Andronicus Angelus?”
“Yes, yes, that’s the man. I was told he spent several days here in Nablus.”
“He is my uncle, and it was my pleasure to show him Nablus, my lord.”
“Did he, by chance, mention anything about this joint expedition to Egypt that King Baldwin planned?”
“My good lord, the plans for a joint expedition to Egypt go back nearly a decade. They were the main topic of discussion during my late lord husband’s visit to Constantinople six years ago. The untimely death of my lord husband caused a delay in implementation, but I know King Baldwin is anxious to pursue his father’s policies in this regard. Indeed, I had been led to believe that your armed pilgrimage with so many knights was explicitly timed to enable you to participate in this campaign.”
“I don’t know where that rumor started,” Flanders retorted testily, pushing his plate away. “I am on a pilgrimage for the sake of my soul, to atone for my sins, and to win favor with God.”
“With 500 knights and 1,500 other fighting men?”
“They are all volunteers like myself, my lady. We are here on a pilgrimage. Yet, it was our hope that our arms might be put to good use in the service of God.”
“Very admirable. What then is the problem, my lord?”
“Well, what does an invasion of Egypt have to do with serving God?” He fixed his eyes on her.
“For a start, my lord, the current ruler—vizier or sultan, or whatever you want to call him—is a passionate advocate of jihad. You know what that is?”
“Yes, although not to be confused with St. Augustine’s concept of Just War. The jihad of Salah al-Din is a war to eliminate anyone who does not recognize the Abbasid caliphate—that is, a war against Shia heretics but also against Christians. He has promised the caliph that he will restore Jerusalem to the caliph’s control. Most important: he does not recognize the right of the Kingdom of Jerusalem to exist.”
“Well, if he tries to invade, we will teach him a lesson, but I see no point in attacking him in Egypt. Not when Christian Edessa still languishes under a Mohammedan yoke.”
“You forget that a large part of the Egyptian population is Christian. They long for liberation no less than the Armenians do, possibly more. The Emperors have traditionally sought to provide protection to them as best they can, but only so much can be done as a foreign power and from the far side of the Mediterranean. You also appear to forget that Egypt was an integral part of the Eastern Roman Empire. My great uncle is only attempting to reassert his authority over his lost territory.”
“That is exactly the problem, my lady! This war appears to be all about you Greeks winning back your Empire. Well, I’ll have you know, I’m not a mercenary. I didn’t come here to fight for the Greeks, but for God!”
Idiot, Maria thought. Pompous, narrow-minded bigot. She smiled at the count. “It seems I have misunderstood something, my lord. Maybe you would be so kind as to enlighten me? You have come a very long distance with a large body of fighting men to fight for God?”
“Yes, haven’t I said that several times already?”
“And by fighting for God, I presume you mean fighting for Christianity.”
“And you recognize that the Kingdom of Jerusalem is a Christian kingdom?”
“A vulnerable Christian kingdom surrounded by hostile, Muslim states.”
“I’m not an idiot, Madame.”
“Then how does fighting the most dangerous of the Kingdom’s enemies not qualify as serving Christ?” She paused only long enough for Flanders to draw a breath and then continued before he could speak. “And more importantly, my lord, how does creating new enemies for this fragile Christian kingdom qualify as serving Christ? Because, make no mistake, my lord, if you offend the Emperor of the Romans, you will have done more harm than good. You will have weakened Jerusalem, robbing it of a valuable and powerful ally. Is that what your vows were about, my lord? To come out here, refuse to fight Muslims, offend Christians, and make Jerusalem more vulnerable? What a splendid pilgrimage indeed, that leaves Christ’s homeland weaker than before.”
Flanders glared furiously at her and then turned to bark at the man beside him. “Send a messenger to Jerusalem at once. Tell them we are prepared to take part in this expedition.”
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