Novare has sent me a very long letter alleging the five baillies are behaving like tyrants and, furthermore, are intent on disinheriting us. He himself was arrested and put in the pillory for refusing to take an oath to the baillies.”
Beirut’s eyes narrowed slightly as he listened to Balian, and Balian felt compelled to add, “Yes, father. I know Philip can be melodramatic and embellish things somewhat, but we’ve also got a letter from Johnny.”
“Why didn’t you say so! Come in. Sit down.” Beirut backed up into his library and seated himself behind his beautifully carved desk, while his children spread out across the window seats and made themselves comfortable. Beirut broke the seal with his knife and started to read out loud.
I hope this letter finds you and all my brothers and Bella well.
I fear I don’t have any good news. Since the Emperor left, Barlais has become terrible. He’s raised a lot of taxes and people are rioting. Recently, he summoned all the knights and made them swear fealty to him and his co-regents, and anyone who refused was arrested. They put Sir Philip of Novare in the pillory and only released him after a whole day. He was told to go home and return the next day to face charges, but King Henry overheard Barlais say they couldn’t let him stand trial because he would bring arguments that would embolden others to reject their rule. So Barlais gave orders to have Novare killed. Henry managed to get a message to him not to go home, so he escaped to the Hospital. When Barlais’ men broke into his house, they killed one of his servants and stabbed his bed a dozen times or more before they noticed it was empty.”
Guy laughed at that, but his father and brothers hushed him. Beirut resumed reading, his face clouded by a frown:
Henry says that the Emperor gave orders to the baillies to expropriate all our lands on Cyprus and prevent you from ever setting foot on the island again.
“That’s outrageous! By what right—” Hugh erupted in agitation. His father silenced him with a gesture and the words, “There is more.”
Henry says Barlais plans to keep our lands for himself and give the lands of our vassals, clients, and supporters to the other baillies. He says the Emperor wanted to give me Foggia because I won’t inherit anything in Outremer—
“That means the Emperor is still intent on taking Beirut from us as well!” Hugh pointed out perceptively. His father and elder brother nodded calmly because they had never doubted this.
“Let me read to the end before we discuss things,” Beirut admonished.
I don’t know what Barlais did to him, but Henry is afraid of him. He used to talk back to the Emperor, but he just tries to stay out of Barlais’ sight. He’s begged me not to leave him alone with Barlais, but if Barlais orders his men to remove me, there’s nothing I can do.”
“Would Barlais really lay a hand on his anointed king?” Hugh asked in shock. “Why? What has poor Henry every done?”
“Henry can have done nothing, but Barlais has long been bitter about the fact that Henry’s father never knighted his,” Beirut explained, astonishing his sons with his insight. “I fear he may want to get his revenge on Henry. Let me finish reading.”
I don’t know what to do or what you would want me to do. I wish you could come, but Henry says you’d be killed the minute you set foot on the island—or as soon as Barlais’ men find you. He says they’ll kill any Ibelins that dare to return to Cyprus. But we can’t just let them take everything away from us, can we? There must be something you can do, and please tell me what you want me to do.
Your loving, respectful and obedient son,
Beirut folded the letter back together again and then lifted his head to look at his firstborn. “Balian? What do you have to say to that?”
“Johnny’s neither a coward nor a liar. Nor is he easily shaken. If he’s asking us to come—because he is—then the situation must be very bad indeed.” As he spoke, Eschiva’s letter seemed to be burning his chest. Balian was afraid for her, and he longed to read the message she’d sent him, but he did not dare so much as touch the place on his surcoat over the letter—not in the presence of his father. He did not want to draw attention to it. He would have to wait until he was alone to read it.
“Yes, I agree. But ‘returning’ to Cyprus under these circumstances would mean open confrontation—armed confrontation—with the men the Holy Roman Emperor named as his representatives. You do understand that?”
“Yes, I do,” Balian assured him, adding testily. “I’m not a fool.”
“No one is implying you are,” his father answered steadily, “I simply want to be sure we are all speaking of the same things. I want no mistake about what we are discussing here.” He then turned to his third son. “Hugh?”
“Johnny’s right. We can’t allow these so-called baillies to just steal our inheritance! We won that land with damn-near forty years of loyal service to the Cypriot crown. Aimery de Lusignan would never have gained control of Cyprus in the first place if our grandfather had not put him there!”
“Bella?” Beirut looked next at his daughter, his face softening as it nearly always did at the sight of her.
“I’m afraid for King Henry, Father. He’s completely at the mercy of Barlais and his men. If he’s already afraid, then what will happen to him if no one stops them from abusing power?”
“Guy?” Guy opened his mouth to give his opinion, but before he could say anything his father continued. “I want you to go find Baldwin and bring him to the solar so we can discuss this with him.”
“Don’t you want to know my opinion?” Guy complained.
While his elder brothers remarked almost in unison, “Not particularly,” his father smiled and said, “All right. Tell me.”
“I think we should go and chase that bastard Barlais right off Cyprus and into the sea!”
“Thank you. That was a very enlightening. Now, will you go find your brother Baldwin?”
Guy sighed and then jumped down from his window seat and started down the stairs at a run. Behind him, his elder brothers got to their feet, but for a moment Beirut remained sitting. Lovingly, he stroked the open page of the book he had been reading before his children burst in on him. Sadly, he closed the Book of the King, which had been commissioned by King Aimery de Lusignan to record the laws of the Kingdom of Jerusalem based on the testimony of reputable men after the court records had been lost in the wake of Hattin.
Finally, with a sigh, Beirut stood. Catching sight of Balian he remarked, “May I request that you change into something clean, fresh and respectable before you rejoin me in the solar?”
“Yes, of course, Father,” Balian answered readily. He felt Eschiva’s letter against his heart begging to be read.
In his room, Balian called for Rob, and, getting no answer, he shot the bolt to the door to ensure he was completely alone. He removed Eschiva’s letter, laid it carefully upon a chest, unbuckled his sword and pulled his surcoat off over his head. His hauberk, sweat-soaked gambeson and shirt were tossed aside, and half-naked he sat down in the breeze from his window to break open Eschiva’s seal.
Unlike Novare and Johnny, Eschiva was sparing of words. Her message consisted of a polychrome image showing a castle surrounded by wolves, one of which was being ridden by a weasel with a shield bearing Barlais’ arms. Inside the castle a cat dressed in boots, hauberk and covered by a blue and yellow surcoat, similar to what Novare liked to wear, stood on his hind feet, brandishing a sword defiantly. Behind the cat, a score of mice wearing wimples and dresses and holding baby mice in their arms huddled together in fear. Below the picture was a single phrase:
“Beloved Balian, we fear for our lives. Please help if you can—without too much risk to yourself.”
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