“They have withdrawn all their troops but have taken up strong positions on the south slopes of the Karpas range astride the road to Kyrenia. We were told by several people that they will prevent any attempt to relieve St. Hilarion, which everyone expects to fall very shortly.”
King Henry took this news with outward calm and inner anger. He knew the Emperor wanted to get his hands on his sisters and the thought made his stomach boil with indignation. He had never known Queen Yolanda, yet Lady Eschiva’s stories of her treatment were vivid in his memory. The Emperor kept women locked in his harem and played with them like a cat with mice. He didn’t want his sisters treated like that—not to mention that his own life would be worthless once the Emperor had captured his sisters.
It didn’t help that he had vivid memories of being trapped in St. Hilarion himself. He had been forced to watch them slaughter all the horses and eat them. Barlais had even threatened to kill and cook his dog Harry. At least his sisters were in the hands of his own men, but if the castle fell to Filangieri, they would be prisoners, just as he had been of the Emperor—and Barlais.
Henry tried to swallow his terror. Barlais had not shied away from physically abusing his prisoners, and Henry’s sisters were both nubile and attractive. Then again, the fact that the Emperor might want to wed one of them himself or at least use them to reward his favorites might protect them. Still, Henry didn’t want to risk it.
He changed the subject. “And my queen? Is she safe?”
Caesarea and Karpas exchanged an uneasy look.
“What is it, my lords? Has something happened to Queen Alix?”
“No, sire. Not that we know of, it’s just . . .”
“My lord of Karpas, you are not normally a man afraid to speak his mind.” Henry pointed out to his pugnacious baron. “What is it?”
“We were told that Queen Alix withdrew with Filangieri, sire.”
“She . . .” Henry felt his stomach turn over. It wasn’t that he’d been looking forward to a reunion with his opinionated and sour-faced wife, but the realization that she preferred to remain with his enemies than to welcome him back to his own kingdom hurt him at a visceral level. His wife had retreated before him. His queen was siding with the very men who were trying to prevent him from being a real king. What sort of a king could not win the loyalty of his own wife? A demon with Barlais’ voice whispered, “You certainly didn’t keep her happy in bed, did you?”
“She may not have had a choice, sire.” Karpas was trying to ease the blow he’d delivered. “She’s probably more hostage than guest,” he suggested.
King Henry nodded, thankful for the baron’s attempt to disguise this insult and humiliation. He just didn’t believe him. Alix had always seen herself as a friend of the Emperor, and the Emperor’s men had treated her as one of their own. She had freely chosen the Emperor’s cause over her husband’s.
When they were less than a mile outside the city, a procession headed by the Archbishop of Nicosia came out to welcome the king home to his capital. Henry dismounted and met the Archbishop on foot. He accepted the Archbishop’s blessings and kissed the cross he carried that contained thorns from the crown of Christ. Then he turned to walk beside the Archbishop into the city. Walking enabled him to hear, see, and feel the well wishes of his people more directly. It reminded him of his childhood, the days when Philip d’Ibelin ruled for him. Back then he had never gone into the streets without being cheered.
With the wisdom of 15 years, he reflected that they had probably cheered him just because he was a little boy who liked it so much. And now? Were they now genuinely pleased to have him back or just being opportunistic?
Henry could not shake off a sense of unease. It clung to him like the scent of burned grain from the day before. Images of the broken grindstones, Barlais’ sneering smile, and Alix’s defection merged into an inchoate threat. Even if the Emperor was willing to quit interfering in Cypriot affairs, Barlais would keep fighting. He had to, or he would lose everything.
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