Balian smelled a rat amidst the luxurious wall-hangings and the silk-covered cushions, the Egyptian carpets and spicy Arab food. Not that he disliked Arab food. There were several excellent Arab cook-shops in Beirut that his brothers and he often patronized, but it still stank to see the Emperor adopt a totally Saracen lifestyle.
Then he had to laugh at himself because it was the adaptation of many aspects of Saracen lifestyle that made many crusaders view the natives of Outremer as “soft,” “decadent” or “corrupt.” It was true that his own family were happy to wear the long flowing, cotton robes of the natives when they were at their ease and in private. True, too, that they frequented the bathhouses, where they were happy to be rubbed down with scented oils, and they had adopted the glass oil-lamps common to the region. But lying down to eat had never taken hold among the Franks of Outremer, much less the form of entertainment Fredrick was now offering.
The dancing girls were very thinly clad, their bellies visible through sheer scarves, and they were bedecked with strings of beads that swung and bounced in response to their lithe motions. They played castanets with their hands, and bells jingled on their ankles. In the center were two nubile girls, who stood barefoot on two large balls and deftly rolled these with their feet while clapping with their hands, swaying their hips and singing in high, almost monotone wails.
“What’s the matter with you, Ibelin?” The voice of one of his companions snapped him out of his thoughts.
“What do you mean, Sir Adelbert?” Balian asked back, instantly defensive.
“I thought you were a notorious seducer? Why the sour face when looking at such delectable samples of female flesh?” His companions broke into wine-induced laughter at the remark—or perhaps at Balian’s evident discomfiture.
“I prefer willing partners,” Balian snapped back, boiling inwardly.
“You think any of those would be unwilling?” They guffawed in near hysterical amusement. One of the German knights slapped his hand on the table in time with his loud “ha, ha, ha!” while Sir Adelbert laughed so hard tears trickled from the corners of his eyes and he had to wipe them away with the back of his hand.
Balian waited until the laughter died away before answering. “Those, good sirs, are slaves. What choice do slaves have? I would not demean myself by taking advantage of such pitiable creatures. Excuse me!” He pulled his feet under him and pushed himself up off the floor to stalk out of the hall into the adjacent corridor.
As the door clunked shut behind him, shutting off the noise of the Saracen singing and music and the babble of voice, he could hear the church bells from across the city ringing for the Feast of the Epiphany—or at least trying to. During the more than 30 years of Muslim rule, the church bells of Jaffa had been silenced. Indeed, most bells had been melted down or put to some other purpose. What clanged now were improvised bells, brought down from Acre or found in disuse. Many were damaged or had jury-rigged clappers. The effect was hardly harmonious, let alone joyous.
Then the bells, cacophonous as they had been, fell silent, and the mood was even more depressing. Balian thought he could hear the sound of surf pounding on the ledge offshore. According to legend, it was on that ledge that the Ethiopian princess Andromeda had been chained until she was rescued by Perseus riding the winged horse Pegasus. Balian imagined being chained to the rock and rescued by Lady Eschiva in a fishing boat. He pictured her standing at the tiller with the waves breaking over the bow. The image made him smile for a moment.
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