In the waist of the ship, the hostages stood in a sorry cluster. They were still wearing the clothes they had worn at the infamous banquet, and their hair and beards were untrimmed. Beirut’s eyes narrowed and he scanned the group twice, but he could not find his sons. He made a head count: eighteen. He caught his breath and drew rein. “Where are my boys?” The question was directed at Caesarea, who rode to his right.
Caesarea had come to the same conclusion: Sirs Balian and Baldwin were not among the men on deck. They looked at one another.
From the raised stern-castle of the ship the sound of giggling wafted over to them, and they both looked back in time to see a lovely, dark-skinned girl yanked back inside one of the windows. The watertight, wooden cover was shut so abruptly that the thud made the horses start, and still the shouting in angry Arabic reached their ears.
Beirut blanched as he registered this must have been one of the women of Frederick’s infamous harem. The thought that a Christian monarch would keep slave girls like this offended him deeply.
Then a commotion near the forecastle drew his attention away from the imprisoned girls, even as he made a mental apology to his niece Eschiva for not believing her. A group of men emerged from the forward hatch onto the deck. A couple sailors came first, followed by men-at-arms in imperial livery. The latter were dragging and shoving two men in their midst. These men were tall, thin and dressed in what appeared to be the habits of Hospitaller lay brothers. They wore no hose, and their naked feet were in wooden clogs. Their hair was shaggy and their faces bearded. It took the Lord of Beirut a full second before he was certain that they were indeed his once proud sons.
Beirut felt his blood boil and his back stiffened enough to make his stallion fret. How often had he chided his sons, Balian in particular, for being vain? How often had he accused him of being a “dandy” and a “fop” because of his love of bright-colored silks, cloth of gold, and jewel-studded belts? How often had he chastised him for “excessive” attention to his outward appearance? Yet, this was far worse, Beirut conceded with inner shame, swearing to himself that he would never again criticize his son for dressing like the nobleman he was.
His sons had not seen him yet, their attention was directed toward the Emperor and the crowd on the afterdeck. This gave Beirut a chance to assess their physical state before confronting their emotions. Baldwin looked considerably better than Balian, whose lips were cracked and swollen and whose eyes were sunken in dark eye sockets. Worse, when the men-at-arms started punishing them toward the afterdeck, Beirut saw Balian stagger and tense. His brother caught him by the arm, and the look on Baldwin’s face said more than a thousand words. Baldwin looked concerned about his rival Balian and that suggested a serious state of affairs. Meanwhile, Balian had recovered and started forward with a set face. His expression, intended to disguise the pain he was in, was a grimace so unsuited to his usually debonair demeanor that it only underlined it.
The Emperor too turned to watch the emergence of the hostages, giving Beirut a chance to watch his face as well. The Emperor was gloating. There was no other word for it. He was smiling not for the audience, but from profound satisfaction at the sight of Ibelin’s proud sons dressed like peasants and in obvious pain.
Beirut clicked to his horse and started forward, distracting the Emperor from the hostages. Beirut saw the look of triumph in his eyes before he hid his expression behind his “friendly” look. Beirut was not deceived. He never would be again, he promised himself. Yet his first priority was regaining control of his sons.
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