Since he was not sure which of them was the Sultan, Ibelin opted to simply bow deeply and greet them collectively: “My lords.”
The man who answered was indeed the man with the sprinkling of gray hairs in his thick beard, but there was otherwise nothing remarkable about him. If anything, he seemed smaller and less imposing than the man beside him. “Monsieur d’Ibelin,” he opened in French that was practiced rather than natural, “we meet at last.”
Ibelin bowed deeply again. “My lord.”
“Please, sit down.” The Sultan reverted to Arabic and gestured to the vacant cushion on the front side of the table. Balian stepped on to the dais and settled himself cautiously on the cushion. Behind him Mathewos and Gabriel settled themselves cross-legged on the floor.
The Sultan snapped his fingers, and black slaves emerged with a silver tray laden with silver goblets and bowls, which were quickly placed before all five men at the table, including Ibelin, but not the scribe. The water that was poured into the goblets from the silver pitcher was so cold that condensation formed almost instantly on the exterior of the silver. The Sultan gestured for Ibelin to drink, and he did so readily, because he knew the rules of Muslim hospitality: theoretically, once a guest had been offered and had accepted water, he was immune from violence of any kind. That didn’t mean that many a man hadn’t been murdered despite the rules of hospitality, but Balian was happy to avail himself of any form of protection offered.
“So,” Salah al-Din opened, after sipping from his own goblet and smiling faintly at Ibelin. “How was the harvest in Ibelin this year?”
“Excellent, your excellency,” Ibelin assured the Sultan. “And in Ramla and Mirabel as well. Nablus, I admit, was not quite so fortunate, but the yield was good enough.” Ibelin was telling the truth, and he knew the Sultan knew it. The drought was much worse to the east of the Anti-Lebanon.
“Tripoli, I believe, had a poor harvest.”
“You did a good job destroying the orchards, your excellency, but the grain harvest was better because of the fertilizer from the fires you set.”
Salah al-Din smiled and nodded before noting somewhat sourly, “Tripoli would not have been so blunt, I think.”
“That may be, and the good Master des Moulins is also more diplomatic than I. I am a fighting man, your excellency.”
Salah al-Din nodded and sipped his water, his eyes fixed on Ibelin. “So is your brother, but you are very different.”
“Indeed, I am only a poor shadow of my elder brother,” Ibelin countered, bowing his head in self-deprecation.
Salah al-Din glanced to the man on his right, suggesting to Ibelin that this was one of his several brothers, perhaps even his most trusted lieutenant, al-Adil. Ibelin could not decipher any particular resemblance between them. Whereas Salah al-Din was somewhat paunchy, the other man was slender, and while Salah al-Din had a round face, the other man’s face was sharp and hawk-like. But then, they would have had different mothers, Balian reminded himself.
“Your older brother must be very angry with Guy de Lusignan,” the Sultan surmised.
“Yes, he is,” Ibelin conceded.
“If a man had taken my intended bride to his bed, I would not have let either of them live.” The Sultan’s tone and expression left no doubt that he thought Ramla’s failure to kill Sibylla and Guy reflected poorly on him—and all Franks.
“My brother is far too loyal to Jerusalem to let a personal matter endanger the fighting capacity of the Kingdom,” Ibelin tried to explain.
“What harm would have come if your brother killed Guy de Lusignan—let alone this woman who dishonored her family and her king?”
Put like that, Balian almost wished his brother had killed them both—it certainly would have solved many problems. But murder was still murder, and had Barry laid a hand on Sibylla, the King would have used all the power of his office to see him punished. Ibelin bowed his head to the Sultan and admitted, “I appreciate that you, my lord, have the courage to murder even viziers, but we Christians have greater respect for God’s laws.”
The men around the table stiffened at this, and al-Afdal’s hand dropped to his hilt, his eyes fixed on his father, awaiting a command. Salah al-Din waved him to relax. “Do not take Allah’s name in vain,” the Sultan admonished Ibelin. “Who are we to know His will?”
“I do not pretend to know His will, only His commandments: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’”
“Yet you do kill,” Salah al-Din retorted calmly, if a little sharply. “I have seen with my own eyes how well you kill, my lord of Ibelin.”
“I have killed many men in self-defense.”
“Only in self-defense?”
“And the defense of those who cannot defend themselves,” Balian added. “Indeed, our code requires us to defend the helpless more vigorously than we defend ourselves.”
“That is irrelevant. Lusignan can defend himself. Your brother should have killed him for what he did—and your King should have ordered his sister stoned for disgracing him.”
Ibelin knew it was pointless to talk about affection for a sister: the Sultan would not be able to understand it. What he called “honor” meant more to him than the life, much less the happiness, of any female. He would never be able to understand that King Baldwin had genuinely cared for his sister, despite her weaknesses. So he ignored the second half of the Sultan’s suggestion and focused on the first. “What do you think my brother’s son-in-law, Guy’s brother Aimery, would have done, while my brother killed his? We are a small kingdom, your excellency, and we cannot afford to be divided among ourselves.”
“And you are united now? Behind this boy?” Salah al-Din sounded skeptical, not to say disbelieving.
“We are, your excellency,” Ibelin told him, steadfastly and with conviction. The problem was not uniting behind Baldwin V, for even Guy could not oppose his stepson without alienating his wife, and Edessa had been bought with the post of guardian, which gave him ample opportunity to enrich himself from the royal treasury. The risk lay in what came after him—if he did not grow into a vigorous young man.
“Yet you come here begging for a truce,” Salah al-Din pointed out, with a faint smile that might have been derogatory.
Ibelin shrugged. “Personally, I would enjoy a truce. My sons are very small. It would be good to watch them grow up. There is much I could do in Ibelin and Nablus to make them richer places. But I do not need a truce.”
“You hope that in five or six years your boy king will grow into a mighty warrior,” Salah al-Din scoffed.
“Yes, we do. Wouldn’t you, in our shoes?”
Salah al-Din laughed at that, shortly. “Yes, but why should I give you that breathing space and risk facing a strong young king six years from now?“
“Because your soldiers are weary of war now. Because the rains have failed this year, and the prices in the markets are so high that there have been riots in many towns. Because you have not yet subdued Mosul, and it threatens your rear. And most of all, because we can still beat you on the battlefield anytime you invade—as we have always done in the past.”
“Each time, your victory is less convincing,” Salah al-Din pointed out.
Ibelin shrugged and opened his hands. “I have more knights than ever before. The losses on the Litani have been made good. We still have untapped resources beyond the sea, and mighty kings who long to fight on our side for the greater glory of God and to defend the holy places of our faith. If you insist on war, your excellency, we will be ready for you. Me, my brother, and my fellow barons. We do not crave peace at any price, for that we could easily have.”
Salah al-Din raised his eyebrows in question.
“With surrender and conversion.”
“Of course.” The Sultan started to dismiss this thought and then paused to ask—almost hopefully, or at least whimsically—“And that is unthinkable?”
“It is!” Ibelin looked him squarely in the eye, with not even a ghost of a reciprocal smile.
Salah al-Din nodded. “I will think about what you have said,” he announced and rose to his feet, ending the interview.
Ibelin also stood, bowed deeply as he would have to his own king, took a step back and bowed again, and then turned and departed, with Gabriel and Mathewos in his wake.
When the Christians were safely out of hearing, al-Afdal protested hotly, “Ibn Barzan insulted you.”
“By referring to the murder of Shawar!”
“Never be offended by reference to your deeds,” the Sultan advised his son. “To take offense is to suggest regret. I do not regret killing Shawar. He had lost his utility to us, and his murder paved the way for the reunification of Islam. Do you mean to suggest it is not a good thing that the heretical Fatimid caliphate has been destroyed?”
“Of course not!” al-Afdal protested. “But the Christian meant it as an insult.”
“That is his problem.” The Sultan dismissed the matter, adding, “I liked him.”
Farrukh-Shah protested with a look of distaste, “Ibn Barzan lacks subtlety.”
“Subtlety? Perhaps, but diplomacy does not consist of deceit, but rather in the art of finding common ground. In this case it is in both our interests to stop fighting for a bit. A truce is not a peace—and Ibn Barzan knows that as well as I do. Ibn Barzan is an honest man, and precisely because he did not try to flatter me or pretend to be my friend, I trust him.”
“You think, then, that the Christians are united behind this boy king?” al-Adil asked skeptically.
“I think they are—because he is the lowest common denominator. It would seem that none of the other barons are man enough to put the boy aside.” It was obvious to his brother, son, and nephew that Salah al-Din was making a disparaging comparison between his own willingness to set aside Nur al-Din’s rightful heir and the reluctance of the Franks to depose Baldwin V. “I thought at first that Ramla was such a man—that he would take revenge on Guy de Lusignan for the dishonor of stealing his bride—but you saw Ibn Barzan’s reaction. Ramla may hate Lusignan, but he does not have sufficient support among his peers to actually hold on to the throne if he were to set aside this boy and his stepfather Lusignan.”
“Who is there to oppose him?” Farrukh-Shah asked. “Tripoli and Antioch are his friends.”
“Yes,” Salah al-Din admitted, “but Oultrejourdain is his rival. And then there are the Templars. I’ve heard they now back Guy de Lusignan. If so, that changes the balance of power in Jerusalem. Don’t forget these Christian fanatics have access to enormous resources in the West, and they can deploy as many knights as the entire Kingdom. It is significant that the Hospitaller Master was sent to make peace with us, but the Templar Master was not in the party.”
“You would have been even less willing to receive him!” Farrukh-Shah pointed out.
Salah al-Din laughed. “Of course—and it would have given me greater pleasure to refuse him. But the fact that he was not sent says a great deal. In the past, both Masters were sent on embassies.”
“I have heard rumors that the new Grand Master hates Tripoli,” Farrukh-Shah insisted.
“Good. Then your spies tell you the same thing that my spies tell me,” Salah al-Din told his nephew pointedly.
“So this is where the Kingdom starts to crack?” Al-Adil suggested uncertainly.
“Maybe, but Ibn Barzan is right: it has not cracked yet. Furthermore, our harvests have been poorer than theirs. We have bread riots; they do not. We have Mosul to contend with; they have only supporters in their rear. We have little to gain by attacking now, and waiting is likely to be more to our advantage than theirs.”
“So you will give them a truce?”
“I think four years should be about right.”
The others nodded in agreement. It would not be such a bad thing, after all, to have time to see to their own affairs.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish