“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.
Queen Maria Zoë looked down to mask her smile, but Ibelin frowned slightly, while Edessa spluttered in indignation and the aging Constable Humphrey de Toron made reproving noises in his throat.
“Excuse me,” Ibelin broke in. “We’ve been riding since daybreak. I need to seek out a privy.”
The others nodded absently as he withdrew, and Tripoli turned to the Dowager Queen. “You should not have risked such an arduous journey so shortly out of childbed, my lady, although you look the picture of health,” he noted honestly and admiringly. His own wife was much older and would not have been up to the exertion. “Your daughter is well?”
“Yes,” the Dowager Queen answered proudly; the disappointment of giving birth to a daughter had faded rapidly in light of her husband Balian’s delight. If he did not care, why should she? “We’ve named her Helvis, after my lord husband’s mother.”
Beyond the door Ibelin made his way not to the closest garderobe, but to the large gardens that backed up against the southern wall of the royal palace. The gardens were enclosed by the massive city wall to the west and a tall protective but not defensible wall to the east and south. Ibelin had served for five years in the royal household and knew the royal palace intimately—including the fact that there was a narrow stairwell that led directly down from the King’s apartments to the garden. The dog-toothed, pointed arch over the door to this stairwell opened in the northwest corner of the garden, nearly hidden behind three tall cypress trees that stretched heavenwards.
Ibelin made his way to this door and tried it. To his relief, it was not locked. He slipped inside the stairwell and closed the door behind him. Here he stood for several seconds, letting his eyes adjust to the dark. Then he started up the stairs, feeling his way by using the tip of his boot to find the next step, one at a time. Eventually he reached the landing and found the door with his hand by feeling for the wood set firmly in the stone frame. He found the iron handle and pushed down on it. This handle moved but the door did not budge; it was locked.
He knocked firmly. As expected, there was no answer, but after a pause he knocked again.
Ibelin felt a surge of relief; the voice was familiar. It belonged to Ibrahim, the Syrian slave who had served the King almost his entire life.
Ibelin leaned toward the wooden door and spoke in a low voice. “It’s me, Balian d’Ibelin.”
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