Aimery backed up into the solar, a sense of foreboding freezing his face and making his movements lame and clumsy.
The cloaked stranger followed him into the room. He was wearing old-fashioned leather boots bound to the leg with thongs, and something clicked in Aimery’s memory. This was surely one of Magnussen’s men.
“My lord,” the man repeated, going down on one knee and then gently pulling back his cloak to reveal a baby sleeping in the crook of his arm.
“Hugh!” Aimery exclaimed instantly, as Maria Zoë and Balian both sprang to their feet in amazement.
“Yes, my lord. Your son Hugh,” the man declared, holding the infant up to Aimery.
Aimery took the little bundle into his arms and looked down at him with wonder. But then his brows knotted in bewilderment. “But what of his brother? Where is Eschiva? The girls?—”
“My lord, Haakon managed to board the pirate ship with half the crew. He broke into the hold where your lady and the children were being held. The crew held the pirates off long enough for Haakon to get them all on deck, but your lady was too weak to climb over the side. As the pirates overwhelmed the crew, your lady thrust the baby into Haakon’s arms and begged him to save at least the infant. That’s what he did.”
“Where is he?” Aimery demanded, and from his grim expression and tone it was clear that he was not satisfied with this story.
Aimery, Balian, and Maria Zoë all gasped at once, and stared at the messenger.
“The pirates fired crossbows as we pulled away. One went straight through Haakon’s back, killing him instantly. We barely managed to catch Hugh as he fell. Almost all the men who had boarded the galley with Haakon were killed, and we lost six more to the crossbows. The Storm Bird was so badly reamed from the collision she nearly sank on the return to port. She’ll never be seaworthy again.” Tears were running down the Norseman’s face as he spoke of the fate of his ship, but they were for his captain and his shipmates, too.
Aimery stared in stunned horror, and Maria Zoë hastened to take the baby out of his arms before he dropped the little bundle in his state of shock.
“Eschiva and the girls? They’re still in the hands of the pirates?” Aimery asked, not wanting to believe it.
“Yes, my lord.”
“But . . . ” But what?
“It was Kanakes,” the Norseman added.
“What? Who?” Aimery shook himself out of his shock.
“Kanakes,” the Norseman repeated. “He’s quite a famous pirate.”
“I know! I put a price on his head!” Aimery answered, irritated. “But why hasn’t he sent me ransom demands? What does he intend to do with my wife and children?”
“I don’t know, my lord, but he was headed for Antiochia Mikra on the southwest coast of Cilicia when we intercepted him.”
“Isaac!” Maria Comnena recognized the ruler of this rebellious enclave of Cilicia immediately.
“Isaac who?” Aimery and Balian asked in unison.
“I forget what he calls himself. He’s nothing but a petty warlord, a traitor to the Emperor. I believe he has been meddling in the dispute between Leo of Armenia and Bohemond of Antioch. He was certainly allied with Saladin as long as the latter lived. God knows who he’s allied with now, but his only interests are his own power and wealth.”
“Then he will sue for ransom?” Aimery asked.
Maria Zoë drew a breath and held it, hesitating with her answer. In the end she said, “It’s hard to know what someone like that wants. I fear he will seek more than money. That would be too mercenary for him. He sees himself more as a power broker.” She paused and then reminded them of the positive: “At least we now know to whom we can direct an embassy.”
Aimery swung around and looked Balian in the eye. “Will you go?”
“Of course; I’ll leave as soon as possible.” As he spoke Balian reached out to raise the Norseman to his feet, remarking to the sailor, “You need rest and food. I’ll see that you get both, and then I will ask that Masses be said for the soul of one of the bravest and truest men I have ever had the privilege to meet: Admiral Haakon Magnussen.”
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