“It’s pissing rain out there,” Novare told his friend Balian. “Let’s have another round, and you can give me a chance to win back my losses.”
The friends had been dicing with the off-duty sergeants at a tavern just below the citadel of Beirut. Because of its proximity to the castle, the tavern was popular with the garrison of Beirut, and many of the younger knights, like Sirs Balian and Philip, frequented it as well. The cook here was a Syrian Christian, a genuine master of Outremer cuisine, who knew how to blend the spices of Arabia with the fruits of Byzantium and the meats of the West. Meals were served with flat-bread, rolls or rice, and the wine was decent, plentiful and affordable.
“I could do with another drink,” Balian agreed, looking over his shoulder for the proprietor or one of the serving girls, “but I’m done dicing with you, Philip. I might keep winning!”
“Come on! My luck is bound to change!” Novare countered. While he recognized that Balian meant well, he simply couldn’t stop gambling. He was on the brink of winning. He could feel it in his bones. Winning and losing always came in streaks, and he’d been losing for days now. His fortunes must be about to change.
“Play something on your lute instead,” Balian countered, jerking his head toward the instrument that Novare carried around with him the way other men carried a hat. He had a talent for putting rhyming couplets, usually disrespectful and slightly off-color, to music to make easy-to-sing ditties.
Philip didn’t have to be asked twice. About the only thing he liked more than gambling and women of easy virtue was music. He removed his lute from its leather case and was just tuning it when the door banged open and the cold, wet air blew in.
The man in the door shoved his lined, chainmail coif off his head and searched the room as his eyes adjusted to the dark.
“Shit!” Balian muttered as he recognized his brother Baldwin. A moment later Baldwin found him.
“You are in trouble up to your eyeballs, Balian!”
“Well, don’t sound so sorry about it!” Balian shot back.
Baldwin just shook his head. “I’m not kidding. This time you’re in shit so deep, I don’t think Hercules could dig you out! Come with me!”
“What is it?” Balian asked frowning but getting to his feet and collecting his cloak.
“I’m not at liberty to talk about it here,” Baldwin answered primly.
That was bad, and Balian knew it. He absently removed a coin and laid it on the table in front of Novare. “Pay my bill, will you?” It was not a question, and Novare noted that it was more than twice what he owed; a subsidy from Balian to his ever-out-of-pocket friend.
Outside in the rain, Baldwin lit into his brother. “I’ve never in my life seen our father so furious. Absolutely white with suppressed rage. I wouldn’t be surprised if he flogged you in front of the entire garrison!”
“What is this about?” Balian asked. They again started together for the citadel that loomed over them, a darker grey against the dull grey of the rainy day.
“Oh, don’t play innocent! This is one thing you can’t pretend you didn’t do!”
“When have I ever pretended not to do something I did?” Balian shot back. “I’m not some stinking coward, who doesn’t own up to what he does!”
“So sorry! I forgot you were a paragon of chivalry! Except for when you’re sniffing around some bitch’s skirts!”
“Don’t be such an ass! As if you didn’t drop your braies whenever you get the chance!”
“Except, I’m not stupid enough to do it with the kind of girl who can point a finger!”
“What do you mean?”
“Does the name Denise strike a bell?”
They had already crossed the bridge over the fosse and reached the barbican. Baldwin called up to the watch to let them in through the postern. The Ibelin brothers slipped sideways through the door held only half-open for them; the men on watch didn’t want to let in too much wind and rain. In the presence of the other men, the brothers suspended their conversation and did not resume it until they were out of hearing.
“Denise?” Balian asked. “You mean the seneschal’s daughter?”
“Yes, that’s the one.”
“What about her?”
Balian didn’t answer.
Baldwin led at a fast pace up interior stairs that by-passed the large double hall and opened in the hallway of the residential tract behind the solar. Baldwin did not give his brother time to catch his breath before pounding on the back door to the solar and announcing in a loud voice. “It’s me, father! I’ve found Balian.”
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