“Give me five minutes to prepare him!” Balian begged his brother, who had come with the news that the High Court had agreed to crown Baldwin and had named Tripoli Regent.
“Of course,” Barisan answered, glancing over his shoulder at his fellow barons, who were approaching from the far end of the gallery in a gaggle. “Of course. Try to cover up the worst of the ulcers, will you? You can put gloves on his hands, can’t you? So we don’t have to kiss his diseased hands?” Barisan’s face was twisted with revulsion at the mere thought of kissing a leper’s hands.
Balian nodded wearily. “I’ll do my best,” he told his brother, and passed through the heavy doors into the lower chamber of the Prince’s apartments. Here he stopped to collect himself. Barisan might be worried about having to kiss a leper’s hands when he gave the oath of fealty, but Balian had a different worry: Baldwin loved his father.
William of Tyre had heard the knocking on the door that Balian had answered. He stood in the stairway from the Prince’s bedchamber on the floor above and asked anxiously, “It’s over?”
William crossed himself. “And the High Court? Have the barons recognized Baldwin or passed him over?”
“They have recognized him, and will be here in just a few minutes to pay homage.”
“Well, thank God for that, at least.” The churchman paused. “Can you keep them here while I break the news to him?”
Balian sighed. “I will try, but I doubt it.”
“Do what you can.”
William of Tyre turned and climbed up the stairs. Balian held his breath, listening. He heard the Archdeacon murmur, “Baldwin, I am afraid I have some very bad news.”
“My father? Is his condition getting worse?” Baldwin’s voice at thirteen was beginning to break, but it quavered now, like a boy’s.
“No, Baldwin, your father is beyond pain and misery. He is with Christ.”
There was dead silence. Then a very tentative, “He—he’s dead?”
The Archdeacon must have nodded, because Balian heard no answer.
After a long silence, Baldwin caught the echoes of a strained voice, “And he didn’t even send for me. . . .”
Hearing the pain in Baldwin’s voice, Balian mentally cursed the dead King for neglecting to take leave of the boy who loved him so much. But Archdeacon William countered firmly, “Your father named you his heir, my lord. You are now King of Jerusalem. The barons are coming to pay you homage.”
It was at that moment that Baldwin broke down and started sobbing. Balian ordered the guards to admit no one until he gave them permission to do so, and took the stairs two at a time to go to Baldwin. Through his tears, the boy looked up at him with pleading blue eyes. “Balian, how can I—how can I—I don’t want to be King! I don’t want—everyone staring at me—I can’t move the fingers on either of my hands!”
“My lord, this is God’s will!” the Archdeacon admonished him. “You have no choice.”
Baldwin ignored his tutor to focus on his friend. “Balian! Help me!”
Balian reached up and brushed away the King’s tears. Then he took him by the shoulders and looked him in the eye. “My lord, you do not need the use of your hands to be King of Jerusalem, any more than you need them to ride. You will be King by the force of your mind and the courage of your heart.”
“They’ll scorn me! They’ll revile me—” Baldwin’s face was crumpling up again, all the memories suddenly vivid of his first months after the rumors started to spread about his leprosy.
Balian gripped him more firmly. “No, they won’t! They will not dare—”
A loud pounding on the door below interrupted them. “My lord!” one of the guards called out, alarmed. “The High Court of Jerusalem and the Regent of the Kingdom demand admittance!” The guard sounded intimidated.
“I’ll hold them!” the Archdeacon volunteered, sweeping down the stairs.
Balian turned back to Baldwin. “Your grace—”
“Don’t call me that! We’re friends, remember?”
“Yes, but you are also now my King,” Balian insisted.
“And you can accept that?” Baldwin asked, frowning.
“I do—and so will they. Believe me, they will be astonished when they see you, for you look healthy still. More than that: you are a handsome youth. Your face is utterly untouched, and we will hide your discolored hands in the embroidered gloves Queen Maria Zoë gave you.”
Baldwin swallowed. “You’ll stand behind me, Balian? Right behind me?”
Archdeacon William could be heard loudly scolding the barons for their impatience. “The King has just lost his father. Give him time to compose himself!”
“Yes, your grace,” Balian answered Baldwin. “I will be behind you when the barons come. But before that, let me be the first to take the oath of fealty.” Balian went down on his knees and held up his folded hands.
Baldwin caught his breath. Then he placed his hands on either side of Balian’s and enclosed Balian’s hands between lifeless fingers encased in cotton gloves.
“I, Sir Balian d’Ibelin, pledge my oath as knight to you, my liege lord, King of Jerusalem, to serve you with my honor and my life so long as we both do live.”
“I accept your oath, Sir Balian, and promise to be a good lord to you so long as you keep your faith with me, so help me God!”
Balian rose to his feet and went to fetch the beautiful kid gloves, embroidered with the arms of Jerusalem, which had been a gift from Queen Maria Zoë. He brought them to Baldwin and, finger by lifeless finger, pulled these over the thin cotton gloves Baldwin was already wearing. Then he went to fetch a comb from the bedchamber on the far side of the wooden partition, but here he was met by the old Arab slave, Ibrahim, who had served Baldwin ever since he had fallen ill. The old man shooed Balian away and called to a colleague. They had been lurking in the background and understood perfectly what had happened. They emerged with a magnificent surcoat, also embroidered with the arms of Jerusalem, with doeskin boots and silk hose. In five minutes Baldwin was dressed like a king, and Balian led him down the stairs to the room below. When William of Tyre saw them, he told the guards to admit the High Court of Jerusalem.
The barons burst in, led by Raymond de Tripoli, and then came to a stunned halt as they caught sight of Baldwin. Balian hung back in the shadows of the stair behind the King. He could not suppress a smile when he saw the amazed faces of the barons, as they found themselves confronted by a fair youth standing straight and with great dignity before them in the splendor of royal robes.
Raymond de Tripoli reacted first. He dropped to one knee and the other barons followed his lead, the last to kneel being Barisan, who was giving Balian a curious look.
“Your grace, your father is dead. We have come to offer homage as your vassals.”
“Where is the Lord of Oultrejourdain?” Baldwin answered, and Balian wanted to laugh out loud as the barons gaped at one another in amazement. His eyes met those of William of Tyre across the room, and they shared a moment of pride; Baldwin had immediately and effectively demonstrated that his body might be crippled, but his mind was not.
“Your grace,” Tripoli stammered, “Oultrejourdain was—misinformed. I’m sure he will rethink his decision. May I?” Tripoli held up his folded hands.
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