The Master bowed again and inclined his head. “Your grace, I am not sure how much you know about my order—”
“I know it is for lepers,” Baldwin snapped, his regal pose slipping badly and making Balian frown. “Are you one?” Balian winced at the bluntness, yet also sympathized with Baldwin’s fascination with someone who looked as healthy as Master Pascal.
“No, sire. Like Sir Balian, I have chosen to serve lepers despite being untouched myself.”
Baldwin was clearly disappointed by this answer, and his grumpy expression returned.
Master Pascal continued, “Being an order dedicated to the care of lepers, we maintain a network of leprosariums.”
“Very admirable. I will instruct my almoner to give you a large donation.”
This time the Master glanced at Balian, looking for some clue as to why the king was so hostile.
“Sire, I doubt Master Pascal would have felt it necessary to request a private interview if he were merely seeking patronage,” Balian suggested, and Baldwin glared back at him with a look that said: I know that, and I’ve told you why I think he’s here. “Hear him out, sire,” Balian urged in a low but compelling voice.
Baldwin nodded for the Master of St. Lazarus to continue.
“What you may not know, sire, is that we have smaller houses, little more than a pair of nursing brothers or sisters who operate from private residences to provide comfort to lepers outside the borders of your kingdom.”
Baldwin shrugged, and the Master glanced again at Balian.
“Sire, I believe Master Pascal is talking about a discreet—not to say secret—presence in the territories of the Saracens.” Balian cast a questioning look at the Master for confirmation.
“Exactly,” he confirmed. “The Muslims do not share our view of leprosy as a sign of divine grace. To be sure, they do not advocate the ostracism of lepers, and their religion teaches that it is no shame to be blind, lame, or leprous. Nevertheless, the general public there, as here, fears the disease greatly, and lepers are often abandoned by their husbands, neglected by their parents or children, and become outcasts in society. Because there are no leprosariums, they have nowhere to go and so, become beggars for the most part. Our work with them has brought many of the followers of Mohammed back to the True Faith.”
“Very admirable, Master Pascal,” Baldwin sounded more sincere, but impatient, nevertheless.
“In lands ruled by the Seljuks, sire, our brothers and sisters often become points of contact not just for those touched by leprosy directly or indirectly, but in a more general way for the many Christians still living under Muslim rule.”
Baldwin nodded impatiently, but Balian’s interest was rising.
“The dhimmis, as they are called, know that the brothers and sisters of St. Lazarus who provide material and spiritual comfort to lepers are subjects of your grace, and part of a larger institution with knights and a headquarters here in Jerusalem.”
Baldwin could sense Balian’s interest and glanced at him curiously, still not understanding why the adults thought all this was so important.
Master Pascal continued, “In consequence, sire, men who wish us well sometimes come to us—and tell us things.”
Baldwin frowned, looked at Balian, and then back at the Lazarist. “You mean “things” of interest and relevance to us?” He was beginning to understand.
“Exactly. The entire network of little houses is a vast network for collecting information about the state of affairs in the lands bordering our kingdom. We learn where there has been too little rain, where a plague of locusts or mice have destroyed the harvest, where a scandal has discredited an imam, where peasants are restless and rebellious, and…the like.”
Baldwin’s interest had been captured at last. He nodded eagerly. “And you have learned something important?”
“Sire, we have strong indications—that is to say information from diverse sources—that suggest Salah al-Din is preparing to undertake a new assault on Aleppo in the very near future.”
Baldwin was now tense. “If he captures Aleppo, it would be disastrous for us.”
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