KING HENRY WAS IN HIS MENAGERIE. It had always been one of his favorite places, but since the arrival of the Holy Roman Emperor, he spent more time here than usual. His Sicilian watchdogs didn’t like the stink of the big cats and made disgusted faces, preferring to stay outside in the garden when Henry visited the cats. Henry didn’t like the smell either, but he found that the longer he stayed the less he noticed it, and so, whenever he wanted to escape the company of the various imperial officials the Emperor imposed on him, he came and conversed with the lion.
“We’re in the same situation,” Henry explained, looking into the unblinking, golden eyes of the lion. “You can’t run free and be with your friends, and neither can I. But at least you don’t have to listen to lectures all day long,” Henry added. The Emperor insisted that King Henry needed more “education” and had assigned him instructors, particularly for the natural sciences and mathematics. That was bad enough, Henry felt, but what he really resented was that whenever the “the wonder of the world,” Frederick Hohenstaufen, spoke with him, the latter spent most of the time telling Henry how evil and insidious his former friends were.
“Maybe Lord Philip did keep some of my revenues for himself,” Henry told the lion, who yawned at him, letting out a puff of bad-smelling breath. “But it isn’t as if I went without anything I needed or wanted,” Henry pointed out.
The lion slowly pulled his hind feet under him and pushed himself upright. He sauntered over to the bars of his cage and looked more intently at Henry, who was sitting on the floor outside the cage with his back against the wall.
“Nor is the Emperor a particularly good king,” Henry informed the attentive lion. “If he was, then people wouldn’t keep rebelling against him. First, he drove the Lord of Beirut into rebellion by threatening to take away Beirut, and now all of Apulia is in revolt. Apulia,” Henry explained to the lion, “are the lands in Southern Italy that belong to the Kingdom of Sicily. For weeks now, messengers arrive practically every day reporting on yet another city that has either fallen or just gone over to the Pope without a fight. And you know the best of it?” Henry asked the lion, who decided to sink down on his belly again but continued to stare at Henry. “The Pope’s armies are led by King John of Jerusalem! Queen Yolanda’s father. I wish my cousin Eschiva was here so we could talk about it,” Henry admitted. The lion was not the best conversationalist.
Since he had no other companion he trusted however, Henry soon resumed his monologue. “I overheard Herman von Salza, that’s the Master of the Teutonic Knights, who recently arrived from Acre, say that if Frederick wanted a kingdom to return to, he needed to take Jerusalem fast and return to Sicily. Frederick insisted he had to ‘crush’ the Ibelins first. Salza tried to convince him that this war on fellow Christians only played into the hands of the Pope, and warned him he might win Cyprus only at the price of losing Sicily. Then he told the Emperor, ‘Take Jerusalem and you’ll be the hero of Christendom. After that, you can do whatever you like to the Ibelins and their friends.’”
Henry paused, thinking about that. “I hope that’s not true because I don’t see why he should be able to take away people’s lands and titles just because he doesn’t like them. Beirut’s father defended Jerusalem against Saladin, you know. If it wasn’t for him, many more Christians would have been enslaved. And Beirut himself made a prosperous city out of Beirut that was a ruin before. The Emperor shouldn’t interfere in affairs here. He doesn’t understand anything about the Holy Land and those of us who were born here.”
The lion yawned again and blinked at Henry slowly.
“I don’t really think he can do Lord John and Lord Walter any harm,” Henry told the lion a little uncertainly. “They hold the royal castles, and if you’d ever seen them you’d know they are impregnable.” Henry stumbled over this word that he had only recently learned from Gunther von Falkenhayn. Then he brightened and confided to the lion, “Best of all, if Frederick goes to Syria to recapture Jerusalem, then I’ll be rid of him! The first thing I’m going to do is ride to St. Hilarion to see my sisters, and then I’m going to visit Lady Yvonne and Lady Eschiva. In fact, I think I’ll hold a tournament and have a banquet with lots of music and dancing.” Henry was warming to the theme of being master of his own house again.
The lion tentatively reached one of his big paws out between the bars of the cage as if offering it to Henry. The fur looked wonderfully soft, and the paw was relaxed and looked gentle. It was almost as if the lion was offering him friendship. Henry wanted to reach out and touch that paw, but the lion-keeper had warned him never, never, never to try to touch the lion. He claimed the lion was still wild at heart and only looking for an opportunity to take his revenge upon his captors.
Still, Henry didn’t feel any hostility emanating from the lion. The lion seemed to understand and sympathize with him. So Henry looked left and right to see if the lion-keeper was anywhere about. He appeared to be alone, but Henry knew from experience that the lion-keeper liked to keep out of sight yet within hearing. “Hello?” Henry called out to see if he got a reaction.
Although no one answered, he heard voices outside—angry, agitated voices.
Now what? Henry thought, pushing himself to his feet in anticipation of something unpleasant.
A moment later one of his Sicilian watchdogs burst in, grimacing at the smell and visibly holding his breath. “My lord! Come at once! The Emperor wishes to speak with you.”
Henry nodded and followed the Sicilian dignitary into the fresh-smelling air of the garden (it did smell a lot better out here), but he refused to rush. In fact, he intentionally dawdled as the Sicilian became more and more agitated. Henry was enjoying himself. The man clearly wanted to give him a smack on his backside or a cuff to his head, as you would a lazy page boy, but Henry was consciously enjoying being exempt from such treatment. He was a crowned and anointed king and no Sicilian nobleman had the right to lay a hand on him. So he kicked at the marble stones in the path with his shoes and stopped to squeeze the figs to see if they were ripe or not.
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