Balian swung up into Damon’s saddle as the stallion turned away from the ship nervously. The horse was seeking an escape route away from the still approaching shouting and hooting. Balian hauled on Damon’s reins in a rare test of will and strength with the otherwise obedient stallion. Damon was starting to lift his forefeet off the cobbles and threw his head up to evade the bit. It took two hands to haul him down again, and when he finally got the horse back under control of sorts, the galley was fifty feet away. Balian only managed a single wave to Eschiva, and then had to take hold of the reins more firmly again.
“Calm down!” he growled at Damon, confused by the horse’s skittishness—until he realized that the air smelled foul, as if he were beside a charnel house. Of course, it was the Street of Butchers that emptied onto the quay here, but he’d ridden down that street hundreds of times and it had never smelled like this. He glanced toward the head of the street again. Out of the narrow entrance rode an apparition that made his heart miss a beat.
For a moment, he thought a corpse or some sort of devil was riding toward him. Then he realized it was a man covered with entrails and offal and riding a horse stained red with blood and trailing intestines. The horse’s eyes were wide with horror and he would surely have bolted had not two men walked on either side of him, holding the bridle firmly.
“Christ in Heaven!” Balian gasped as he recognized first his father and then Eschiva’s brother as the men holding the horse under control. Only then did he grasp that the man all but obscured by the innards of slaughtered beasts was none other than the Holy Roman Emperor.
A large liver quivered tenaciously atop his ruined velvet hat. Blood from God-knew-what had stained half his face. Intestines and bowels were draped haphazardly over his shoulders, and a cow’s kidney had landed in his lap.
Frederick Hohenstauffen was so rigid with rage that he seemed made of stone. He sat immobile in the saddle, ignoring the stench and the blood and the filth as Montbéliard and Beirut with difficulty guided the horse to the gangway of the Imperial galley. The Imperial officials were running about in near hysterical distress. The archers gaped, the sailors suppressed their instinct to laugh, the servants ran about looking for water and fresh robes, while Frederick’s household officials rushed to welcome him.
Balian gave up trying to convince Damon to approach such an appalling visage stinking of death. He jumped down and let go of the reins altogether. Damon at once trotted to the far end of the quay but loyally waited there while Balian went on foot to join his father.
He reached him just as the Lord of Beirut helped the Emperor up onto the gangway, handing him off to one of the Imperial officials, who rushed forward to take the Emperor’s elbow and guide him aboard the ship. He moved like a zombie: his face still a rigid mask of frozen fury. He held his arms stiffly away from his sides so the gore dripped off him, and he slapped his feet down on the wooden planks to shake off the entrails that still clung to them.
Orders were shouted for the ship to cast off. When it didn’t happen fast enough, an officer grabbed an ax and hacked through the hawsers. The ship instantly veered into the harbor.
“Go with God, my lord!” Beirut shouted to the Emperor’s back.
The Emperor spun about and the look he leveled at Beirut was one of sheer hatred. It was, Balian registered, a hatred magnified by the fact that the Hohenstaufen now owed Beirut for rescuing him from the people of Acre.
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