After fighting almost two decades in Outremer, Aimery was ready to “settle down.” He wanted land he could call his own, land he could cultivate, land he could bequeath. He wanted to sink down roots and leave a legacy. He wanted to plant olive orchards that would still be here at the next millennium. He wanted to build a house for his growing family that would shelter his descendants for generations. It didn’t seem such an ambitious dream to him, but it was elusive. Or rather, unrealistic. With the Kingdom of Jerusalem reduced to a quarter of what it had once been, there simply wasn’t enough land to go around. Great lords like Tiberius had nothing, let alone men like himself, who had never had claim to a barony.
Cyprus, however, was fertile and sparsely populated. It offered him opportunity—if only it weren’t ruled by the brother he had come to hate. And worst of all, Guy didn’t even want it. He still coveted the crown he’d lost: Jerusalem. It was madness.
Now this. He was imprisoned for allegedly supporting the brother he detested in his brother’s stupid quest for Jerusalem, which he opposed! Guy knew better than to ask Aimery for anything—much less support for his moribund claim to Jerusalem. Guy would make the best witness for the defense, but no one was likely to let Guy testify—even if there was a trial. It would be so much easier to just let him rot here . . .
And then the key turned in the lock and Aimery sprang to his feet. He was a bundle of nerves, and he found himself facing the door, every muscle so taut he was almost trembling with anticipation. Had they come to slit his throat or simply bring him a meal?
The door was massive, braced, and studded with iron. It swung open only slowly and with a creak. The man who entered had to duck under the door frame, but even before he straightened to his full height, Aimery recognized him and cried out in relief. “Balian!”
“John brought us word immediately,” Balian answered, pulling a loaf of bread and a jug of wine out from under his cloak. “I brought these along as well, in case you needed something fortifying.”
“Is the news that bad?” Aimery asked at once, tensing again.
“Not at all. I just finished giving Henri de Champagne a lesson in the laws of the land, pointing out that he had no right to arrest you. I have received his assurance—in the presence of the chancellor, chamberlain, seneschal, and viscount of Acre—that he will release you, on one condition.”
“What condition?” Aimery asked, wary at once.
“That you resign the office of Constable. The crux of the matter is that Champagne doesn’t trust you and doesn’t want a man he doesn’t trust as his deputy. He’s traumatized by the image of what Burgundy did to King Richard. I can’t say I blame him. In the circumstances, it doesn’t make any difference if you’re guilty or not: if he doesn’t trust you, he doesn’t trust you. Shall we sit while we discuss this?” Ibelin gestured toward the straw pallet.
Aimery nodded absently and sank down onto the crude bed. Ibelin handed him a pottery mug that he’d stashed in an inside pocket of his cloak, and then removed the cork closing the jug to pour wine for Aimery. It was strong red wine, and Aimery swallowed it gratefully. Only after he’d had a few sips did he look hard at Ibelin and ask, “What are you suggesting? That I resign as if I were guilty? And then what? Go beg in the streets?”
“Hardly. You know perfectly well my lady and I will make you and your family welcome at Caymont—such as it is. I can certainly use another pair of hands to dig irrigation ditches!” Ibelin laughed dryly at his own joke. Aimery did not.
They looked at one another.
“We’re not the brave young knights we once were, are we?” Ibelin remarked, remembering their youth, when both had been landless knights seeking their fortune at the vibrant court of King Amalric of Jerusalem. Then the Kingdom had stretched far beyond the Jordan . . .
“Is that my only choice? Resign and live on charity or rot here?”
“No. You can defend yourself before the High Court of Jerusalem. You have many friends there—and, unlike Champagne, they’ve known you for decades. You stand a good chance in the High Court.” He paused before adding, “Then again, many on the High Court hate your brother. If you lose, you’ll be banned from the Kingdom, such as it is. Or, you could choose trial by combat and put your future and that of your family in the hands of God.”
Aimery tipped the mug up and drank in deep gulps, then held the mug out to Ibelin for more. He was beginning to understand how this man had managed to extract concessions from the victorious Saladin in impossible situations. He certainly had a way of making you see the risks of any decision! “What does Eschiva want me to do?”
“I haven’t asked her. I came straight here.”
“And your lady?”
“The same. I haven’t had a chance to talk to her, but she did go to her daughter to plead your case. I daresay she will have succeeded in making Isabella feel guilty.”
Aimery’s lips turned up in acknowledgment of the debt he owed the Dowager Queen. Out loud he confined himself to remarking, “Indeed, she can be very persuasive.” He paused and then remarked with a deep sigh, “I gather you think I should take this offer to resign?”
“I do. I don’t want your case to come before the High Court, because it will tear the Kingdom apart, and we’ve just barely patched it back together again. Champagne’s rule is far too fragile as it is. And it certainly doesn’t help that the King of England is rotting in a German jail. No one is going to come to our aid if al-Afdal, hothead that he is, decides to break his father’s truce. We’re entirely on our own, and our resources are tiny. The only thing that keeps me from despair is Cyprus.”
“Cyprus,” Aimery echoed wistfully.
“Yes. It’s rich enough to feed us, close enough to receive us, and it could be a source of men and materiel, too—if it were in the hands of a good lord.”
“Meaning my brother is not?”
“God help us all!” Aimery threw up his hands.
“Amen. But assuming the Lord helps those who help themselves, then the first step might be for you to go to Cyprus.”
“Are you crazy? Guy told me flat-out he didn’t need my help and he didn’t want it!”
“That was before Geoffrey gave up on him and sailed back for France,” Ibelin pointed out.
Aimery thought about that. There was something to it. Their older brother Geoffrey had been pulling Guy’s strings ever since he came out to Outremer in 1188. While he didn’t share Aimery’s resentment of Guy, he had shared his assessment of him. Geoffrey had counted on Guy being fully restored to his kingdom and so receiving from him the rich county of Jaffa and Ascalon for himself. When King Richard recognized first Montferrat and then Champagne as the rightful King of Jerusalem, and—worse still—bartered away Ascalon in the Treaty of Ramla, Geoffrey had lost interest in the Holy Land altogether. He’d gone with Guy to Cyprus the previous fall, only to sail for France this spring. Guy was now alone on Cyprus with only a handful of followers.
“It’s worth a try,” Ibelin prodded.
If only you knew how you are tempting me, Aimery thought, his memories of Cyprus starting to banish the walls of his prison. And why shouldn’t he give in to this temptation? What did he have to lose? His position as Constable was precarious at best and deadly at worst. Champagne would almost certainly find a new excuse to imprison him—assuming he could even talk himself out of the charges he’d already leveled.
“Eschiva and the children can stay with us, of course,” Ibelin sweetened the lure even more.
Aimery knew that the happiest years of Eschiva’s life had been when she lived with Balian and Maria. Caymont wasn’t Ibelin, of course, but she’d be with people she loved and trusted. The children would be in the countryside where they could grow up in the fresh air, riding, swimming, and climbing trees with their cousins. And maybe, just maybe, he could talk his brother into giving him that slice of Cyprus that he so desperately coveted. Outwardly he shrugged to disguise his inner excitement. “You’re right. It’s worth a try.”
Ibelin’s face broke into a smile, and then he flung his arms around the prisoner. They hugged each other in mutual relief before Ibelin got to his feet and pulled a still somewhat benumbed Aimery up after him.
Aimery was feeling slightly manipulated, yet comforted himself with the thought that he was in good company. Ibelin was the man who had reconciled Tripoli with Lusignan, obtained terms for a city already conquered, and secured a kingdom already lost. What chance had he against the Great Negotiator?
Meanwhile Ibelin pounded on the door with his fist and demanded, “Open the door! The Constable has resigned!”
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