“My dear Balian Ibn Barzan,” the Sultan greeted Ibelin with a smile, “please.” With a gesture he indicated cushions beside a beautifully carved table inlaid with ivory. “You will appreciate that since it is Ramadan I cannot join you, but I’ll have sherbet and refreshments brought for you at once.” He snapped his fingers, and a young boy jumped up from a wooden stool in the corner by the door to do his bidding.
The boy was gone too fast for Balian to get a good look at him, but his skin tone had been fair. Balian’s stomach wrenched at the realization that he might be one of the many Frankish children who had ended in slavery.
Unaware of what was going on in Ibelin’s mind, Salah ad-Din remarked in a pleasant tone, “You are looking much better than the last time we met.”
“I should hope so,” Ibelin retorted, trying to force levity into his voice; “last time we met I’d been fighting off assaults by your troops for nine days.”
The Sultan laughed lightly. “Indeed, but it did you no serious harm, as we see. I seem to find you every place I attack: Tyre, Acre, Arsuf.”
“I surrendered Jerusalem; I did not promise not to take up arms against you again,” Ibelin reminded the Saracen leader evenly. Balian had nothing to reproach himself with—and if he incidentally disparaged Guy de Lusignan with his words, so much the better.
“Indeed, and I left you your arms.” The Sultan indicated with an elegant gesture the sword at Balian’s hip, its prominent enamel pommel bearing the arms of Jerusalem on one side and the arms of Ibelin on the other. “But given your unwavering hostility, I was very surprised to hear you had requested an audience.”
“It is a very poor general who does not attempt to achieve by other means what will cost him a great deal of blood to achieve by force of arms.”
Salah ad-Din laughed. “Who are you talking about? You or me?”
“I am no longer a commander,” Ibelin reminded him.
Salah ad-Din only raised his eyebrows in disbelief.
“I am here at the behest of Conrad Marquis de Montferrat, the husband of my stepdaughter, Isabella Queen of Jerusalem.”
Salah ad-Din’s expression did not change. It was obvious to him that Ibelin controlled his son-in-law, and he found it disingenuous to pretend otherwise. He could only suppose that his pose had something to do with faranj laws that allowed titles to pass through females.
The return of the slave boy interrupted further discussion for the moment. The boy was burdened with a large silver tray laden with bowls overflowing with pistachios, almonds, raisins, figs, and dried apricots. A silver chalice already covered with condensation contained crushed ice and a carved ivory spoon. As the boy set the tray down, Ibelin looked at him more closely. He had blue-gray eyes and light brown hair, his skin was coppery red, and he had freckles. He was almost certainly a Frank by birth.
The Sultan saw Ibelin’s interest and announced, “Ahmed was born Christian, but he has now converted to the True Faith and hopes to be a Mamluke one day—don’t you, Ahmed?”
The boy dropped to his knees and banged his forehead on the floor. “If Allah, praise be to his name, so blesses me, your Excellency!” His voice was more a breathy whisper into the carpet than an affirmation of faith, or so it seemed to Balian. Furthermore, Balian did not see anything particularly praiseworthy in converting orphaned children taken by force from their homes. The boy had been baptized, and he felt certain that Christ would have pity on him. He therefore refrained from giving the Sultan the satisfaction of looking scandalized or upset.
Seeing that Ibelin was not going to react, Salah ad-Din dismissed the boy with a wave of his hand, and he withdrew backwards to resume his station on the stool in the corner by the door, awaiting the next order. Balian reminded himself that life as a page was not much better, and that Eschiva’s son Hugh now served King Richard.
“Please, go ahead!” The Sultan urged Ibelin to partake of the refreshments he could not enjoy himself until sundown. “Where were we?”
“I’ve come to you, your Excellency, with a proposal of peace from the Marquis de Montferrat.”
“Ah, yes. Please proceed.” The Sultan sat back in his cushions and made himself comfortable. Ibelin mentally noted that the Sultan had gained a lot of weight in the last four years and looked much older than he had at Jerusalem, which seemed odd, given his unbroken series of victories until Acre and now Arsuf and Jaffa.
Ibelin laid out Montferrat’s proposal. He included the return of all captives, knowing it was a maximum demand that would have to be negotiated downwards to something more reasonable. The Sultan listened with an impassive, almost disinterested expression, and with each passing moment Ibelin’s hopelessness grew. The Sultan, he sensed, was not the least bit interested in his peace terms. Probably not in any peace terms, he reflected in discouragement. Not once was there a flicker of interest in his amber eyes. When Ibelin could think of nothing more to say, he fell silent.
Just then the muezzin started the call to prayers. The Sultan excused himself and withdrew into his inner chamber to pray, while the slave boy prayed in place by his stool—bowing, kneeling, standing, and kneeling again in answer to the calls of the muezzin. Ibelin remained sitting, but crossed himself and recited the Lord’s Prayer until the voice of the muezzin fell silent. He completed the prayer twice and started a third time before the muezzin fell silent. He finished the prayer in the ensuing silence.
Salah ad-Din returned and settled himself again on his cushions. “Allah has inspired me with wisdom and an answer to your offer,” he announced with a smile and hard eyes. “Tell the Marquis of Montferrat that I will gladly acknowledge his title to Tyre, Sidon, and Beirut and withdraw my troops and garrisons from the entire territory between the mountains and the sea that once made up the associated lordships—after he has control of Acre and is in a position to surrender it to me.”
Ibelin did not react, because now that the Sultan had spoken, it seemed so obvious. Why had he allowed himself to be sent on this fool’s errand?
“As for the captives,” the Sultan continued, “we will return one captive for each Saracen prisoner you return to us. A simple exchange, one for one—minus, of course the twenty-five hundred that the English King slaughtered at Acre. In short, we’ll start counting and return one Christian captive for each Muslim prisoner you return to us only after you return twenty-five hundred prisoners to us to make up for the hostages slaughtered so barbarically by your Malik Rik.” There was real bitterness in that statement, Balian noted inwardly.
Outwardly, Ibelin nodded, and remarked, “I understand your position, your Excellency. I will report it back to the Marquis de Montferrat faithfully.” He bowed his upper body toward the Sultan. “Thank you for receiving me so warmly and for your hospitality.” He bowed again, and then uncrossed his legs and began to get to his feet.
A flicker of surprise crossed the Sultan’s face. Ibelin’s reaction struck him as far too calm, and he began to doubt his earlier assumption that Ibelin spoke for himself. Was it possible he was playing some other game? His spies reported that Ibelin opposed the English King, but he had fought beside him at Arsuf and again at Jaffa. It was very much in Salah ad-Din’s interests to keep the Franks divided among themselves. He wavered, wondering if he should offer Montferrat something a little more palatable.
Ibelin was already on his feet and bowing again. “Thank you again for receiving me. I wish you a blessed and peaceful Ramadan, your Excellency.”
The parting speech sounded so natural in Ibelin’s fluent Arabic that Salah ad-Din found himself on the brink of wishing him the same. He caught himself just in time and, smiling somewhat embarrassedly, admitted, “I find myself wishing we were on the same side rather than enemies. I would have rewarded you far better than your kings. You would be master of a province by now if you were only a Believer.”
Ibelin bowed deeply again. “You flatter me, your Excellency—for were I worthy of so much power, then God would surely have seen fit to bestow it upon me.”
Salah ad-Din shook his head in bemusement. He wished more of his emirs had so much faith in the Almighty!
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