The Mamluke rapped on the door in what appeared to be a signal and then resumed his immobile stance, leaving Balian feeling like an awkward intruder. He wondered if the Sultan knew that making him wait here was sheer torture. How could he forget that in this house his brother, crazed with grief, had predicted: The forces of evil are on the move. They are gathering their troops and sharpening their weapons, and Christ is a powerless man of peace while the gods of war are about to devour us alive. Balian had not wanted to believe him, but now he stood in his brother’s house and the Sultan of Damascus was occupying his brother’s bedroom.
Finally the door opened, and a completely veiled woman scuttled out of the room and started down the corridor with her head down and eyes averted. Was it to avoid even the slightest eye contact with a Polythiest? Or was it from shame, because she had been raised to see herself as the embodiment of man’s baser instincts, a less worthy soul than all males even in the eyes of God? The sultan emerged, drying his hands on a linen towel, and Balian smiled cynically, thinking how inconvenient Frankish architecture was the maintenance of a harem.
“My dear Balian Ibn Barzan,” the Sultan greeted Ibelin with a smile, “please.” With a gesture he indicated cushions beside a beautifully carved table inlaid with ivory. “You will appreciate that since it is Ramadan I cannot join you, but I’ll have sherbet and refreshments brought for you at once.” He snapped his fingers, and a young boy jumped up from a wooden stool in the corner by the door to do his bidding.
The boy was gone too fast for Balian to get a good look at him, but his skin tone had been fair. Balian’s stomach wrenched at the realization that he might be one of the many Frankish children who had ended in slavery.
Unaware of what was going on in Ibelin’s mind, Salah ad-Din remarked in a pleasant tone, “You are looking much better than the last time we met.”
“I should hope so,” Ibelin retorted, trying to force levity into his voice; “last time we met I’d been fighting off assaults by your troops for nine days.”
The Sultan laughed lightly. “Indeed, but it did you no serious harm, as we see. I seem to find you every place I attack: Tyre, Acre, Arsuf.”
“I surrendered Jerusalem; I did not promise not to take up arms against you again,” Ibelin reminded the Saracen leader evenly. Balian had nothing to reproach himself with—and if he incidentally disparaged Guy de Lusignan with his words, so much the better.
“Indeed, and I left you your arms.” The Sultan indicated with an elegant gesture the sword at Balian’s hip, its prominent enamel pommel bearing the arms of Jerusalem on one side and the arms of Ibelin on the other. “But given your unwavering hostility, I was very surprised to hear you had requested an audience.”
“It is a very poor general who does not attempt to achieve by other means what will cost him a great deal of blood to achieve by force of arms.”
Salah ad-Din laughed. “Who are you talking about? You or me?”
“I am no longer a commander,” Ibelin reminded him.
Salah ad-Din only raised his eyebrows in disbelief.
“I am here at the behest of Conrad Marquis de Montferrat, the husband of my stepdaughter, Isabella Queen of Jerusalem.”
Salah ad-Din’s expression did not change. It was obvious to him that Ibelin controlled his son-in-law, and he found it disingenuous to pretend otherwise. He could only suppose that his pose had something to do with faranj laws that allowed titles to pass through females.
The return of the slave boy interrupted further discussion for the moment. The boy was burdened with a large silver tray laden with bowls overflowing with pistachios, almonds, raisins, figs, and dried apricots. A silver chalice already covered with condensation contained crushed ice and a carved ivory spoon. As the boy set the tray down, Ibelin looked at him more closely. He had blue-gray eyes and light brown hair, his skin was coppery red, and he had freckles. He was almost certainly a Frank by birth.
The Sultan saw Ibelin’s interest and announced, “Ahmed was born Christian, but he has now converted to the True Faith and hopes to be a Mamluke one day—don’t you, Ahmed?”
The boy dropped to his knees and banged his forehead on the floor. “If Allah, praise be to his name, so blesses me, your Excellency!” His voice was more a breathy whisper into the carpet than an affirmation of faith, or so it seemed to Balian. Furthermore, Balian did not see anything particularly praiseworthy in converting orphaned children taken by force from their homes. The boy had been baptized, and he felt certain that Christ would have pity on him. He therefore refrained from giving the Sultan the satisfaction of looking scandalized or upset.
Seeing that Ibelin was not going to react, Salah ad-Din dismissed the boy with a wave of his hand, and he withdrew backwards to resume his station on the stool in the corner by the door, awaiting the next order. Balian reminded himself that life as a page was not much better, and that Eschiva’s son Hugh now served King Richard.
“Please, go ahead!” The Sultan urged Ibelin to partake of the refreshments he could not enjoy himself until sundown. “Where were we?”
“I’ve come to you, your Excellency, with a proposal of peace from the Marquis de Montferrat.”
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