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.
He jumped down from his horse, handed off the reins, and mounted the gangway in an easy fluid motion. Caesarea and Karpas scrambled to stay close on his heels. As he dropped onto the main deck he made eye contact with Balian and then Baldwin. The reproach, anger, and hatred he had feared to meet in their eyes were not there. There was not even bewilderment or incomprehension, only relief and, amazingly, respect. Baldwin nodded to him, as if in encouragement, while Balian tried to smile.
Beirut did not stop to speak to them. Instead, he turned away to mount the ladder up to the afterdeck. Here he approached the Emperor’s party and went down on one knee in a gesture of homage.
The Emperor bent and raised him up, kissing him on each cheek before intoning in a voice that to Beirut’s ears was sheer sarcasm, “What a joy to see you again, my lord! We rejoice to be united at last in this great enterprise for our Lord Jesus Christ. But, first, let us restore to you the hostages you left in our keeping. Here they are, whole and well, just as we promised!” Behind him, one of his Archbishops smiled benignly as if he didn’t know what had been done to the hostages, as if he didn’t know he served an excommunicate like a lapdog.
Sirs Balian and Baldwin had been brought onto the afterdeck in their father’s wake and were shoved to stand at his elbow. The smell of them made Beirut’s stomach turn over—not in revulsion but fury. He turned again to look at them up close, and his first impression was reinforced. Whatever the Emperor had done—or ordered or condoned others to do – he had not broken them. Beirut nodded to them, and they nodded back almost imperceptibly. All three Ibelins understood instinctively that this was no time for a great display of emotion. Anything that revealed how happy they were to be reunited would only make them more vulnerable and delight their watching enemies.
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