“Won’t any of you support me in this?” Balian demanded of his siblings furiously as soon as they were alone together. “The Emperor intends to humiliate and ruin our father! He told me to my face that he would hold him accountable for Uncle Philip ‘plundering’ the royal Cypriot treasury—and that was before Barlais started filling his ear with further lies.”
“That’s what you keep saying, but the Emperor’s letter spoke a very different message,” Baldwin pointed out in an annoyed tone.
“Didn’t you hear what everyone in there was saying?” Balian countered incredulously. “Everyone agreed the letter was suspicious! The Emperor’s letters have more often been filled with lies than truth! He lied to King John, he lied to the Pope, he lied to the Lombard League, he lied to the German princes! His reign is a catalogue of broken promises. Starting with a crusading vow that he’s deferred so many times I lost track! The Patriarch of Jerusalem warned against any association with the Hohenstaufen.”
“Don’t let yourself get dragged into Church affairs, Bal,” Hugh advised. “The Emperor’s dispute with the papacy has nothing to do with us. The Pope tried to stop this crusade even though it’s the best chance we’ve had of regaining Jerusalem since Richard the Lionheart went home.”
“That’s not the point,” Balian argued. “You’ve got to understand how often Frederick has said one thing and done the opposite! If this is supposed to be a crusade, why the hell did the Holy Roman Emperor bring more scholars and clerics than fighting men? Why did he bring his harem?”
“Oh, come on!” Baldwin rolled his eyes. “You don’t have to lower yourself to repeating convent-girl gossip!”
“Damn it, Baldwin!” Balian lashed out at his brother furiously. “I saw them with my own eyes!”
“Really? Harem girls?” Hugh pricked up his ears and looked like a bird-dog ready to pounce. “I’d like to see them.”
“They were veiled, of course,” Balian tossed at Hugh, deflating his interest a little, “but there were about a dozen of them. Furthermore, they were escorted off one of Fredrick’s ships by a score of Mamlukes—probably eunuchs—in turbans and Saracen sashes. I could hardly believe my eyes so I asked one of the sailors about them. He told me they were Sicilian Muslims who served the Emperor as his personal bodyguard—and the body guard of his harem it seems—just like our cousin Eschiva tried to tell us. This is not a man who is the least bit serious about a crusade! He’s here for no other purpose than to exert his authority over us—the lords of Cyprus and Jerusalem! You’ve got to believe me!” Balian was starting to feel desperate.
“I agree with you, Balian,” Bella spoke up, startling her brothers. “Frederick isn’t much of a fighter, but he’s obsessed with his power and position.”
“Just what makes you, of all people, an expert on the Holy Roman Emperor?” Baldwin wanted to know.
“I’m the one who talked to cousin Eschiva most, and she spent three years at his court.” Bella told him bluntly, staring him down.
“Eschiva? You should have heard the way her brother talked about her! She’s not a reliable witness,” Baldwin said dismissively, earning the immediate ire of both Balian and Bella.
Balian rose to Eschiva’s defense “She’s a far more reliable witness than Eudes is! Eudes is so wrapped up in his own importance and self-interest he wouldn’t be able to see a rabid dog if it was standing three feet in front of him.”
Bella insisted belligerently, “Eschiva is very perceptive and intelligent, and she saw the callous and cold-blooded way Frederick treated his bride—which is why all that talk about ‘dear and well beloved cousins,’ and ‘affectionate’ feelings for Papa is fake. Think about it, Baldwin! Why on earth would the Emperor want Papa to bring ‘his children’ with him on crusade? He seemed far more interested in us than in the King—which is very suspicious.”
“We happen to be some of the best knights—” Hugh started to point out.
“Spare me!” Bella cut him off. “The Emperor didn’t say ‘adult sons’ or ‘knighted sons,’ he said ‘your children,’—which, by the way, included Johnny and Guy and me!”
“And you will stay right here in Nicosia with the King’s sisters,” John of Beirut ordered firmly, coming into the room and bringing his sons to their feet respectfully.
“Father, we need to talk,” Balian declared at once, only to break off when his father shook his head.
“Balian, I know what you think and feel. You’ve told me often enough already.”
“Father, listen to me! Frederick is surrounded by Muslims and Jews.”
“And four archbishops,” his father reminded him.
“Four Sicilian Archbishops, who are about as spirited as donkeys!”
“Balian! Please! I don’t like to hear you talk that way about princes of the Church. Calm down, and listen to me instead. We don’t need to discuss it again because this letter gave your suspicions more credence than anything more you could say. Bella, sharp as she is,” Beirut smiled at his daughter with genuine pride, “put her finger on it. This insistence on me bringing my children is alarming. You and Hugh are also right: the letter reeks of nauseating flattery. His assurances of affection for the ‘uncle’ of a bride he treated hardly better than a slave girl ring very hollow indeed. I do not believe for a moment that the Emperor intends to seek my advice much less honor me in any way.” He paused to let his words sink in, and Balian was humbled by his father’s clear understanding of the situation.
“That said, I was not being melodramatic when I said I would rather die than be accused of undermining this crusade. Your grandfather spent his entire life in the service of Jerusalem. He gave everything for Jerusalem—offering his own freedom to ransom the poor. I, in contrast, have done nothing but enrich myself. I have rebuilt a city and built a splendid palace. By the grace of God, I have six fine children, and have seen them educated and outfitted in the most lavish manner possible. I am one of the wealthiest and most powerful men this side of the sea. Many men in Outremer follow my lead and my example. If I fail to respond to the Emperor’s summons, then men will be right to say that I am nothing but a wealthy, ambitious and self-serving man.”
“But he’s hardly brought any troops himself!” Balian protested again.
“All the more reason that we must come with our full strength,” his father countered. “You,” he looked to Balian, but then included Bella and Hugh, “however, are right that there is good reason to doubt the Emperor’s intentions. So we must all be on the alert, but the men of the House of Ibelin will go to meet the Emperor, while Bella remains here. Understood?” He looked from one child to the other, receiving a “Yes, my lord,” from all his children.
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