Hugh, on the other hand, looked grief-stricken as he remarked. “You are lucky.” After a pause he added with a touch of bitterness. “You were always lucky in love.”
“Cecilia loves you no less intently, Hugh. Trust me—as one who has had the opportunity to learn more about the hearts of ladies than was good for me,” Balian countered, reaching out to lay a hand on his brother’s shoulder.
“Perhaps. But she is in the Emperor’s clutches, along with Aunt Alys and Maria. The Emperor’s Sicilian dogs dragged them out of the Hospital using brute force and the ‘brave’ brothers of Christ just stood by and let them do it! Women and children sought refuge under the roof of the Knights of St. John, thinking armed knights vowed to the service of Christ would protect them, and instead the knights of the Hospital just stood aside! Jusef was told—” Hugh broke himself off, too furious and too bitter to continue. “Go ahead, Jusef, you tell him. Tell my brother what you heard about the other women.”
Jusef nodded and his face grew serious. “They loaded them on carts and donkeys and dragged them all the way to Kyrenia. There were thousands of witnesses! Some Armenian merchants traveling the same road claimed the Sicilian mercenaries gave them nothing but bread and water throughout the trip and made them piss in plain sight on the side of the road.”
“What?” Balian asked in disbelief. “That can’t be!”
“Why would anyone make that up?” Hugh snapped back.
Balian could only shake his head in disgust, then nod to Jusef to continue.
“Once they reached Kyrenia, they paraded the wife of the former regent—”
“Lady Alys?” Balian asked to be sure.
“Yes, Lady Alys. They paraded her through the streets of Kyrenia like a whore going to the stocks. Several people told me that a Sicilian knight made her stand up on the back of a cart with her hands bound and her head bare.”
“Whoever gave that order is a dead man!” Balian promised grimly. “I’ll kill him with my own hands!” Balian had served his uncle Philip as a squire. His Aunt Alys had been as much a mother to him as his own, since the latter had died when he was only ten.
“I think they said his name was Hugo de Quino,” Jusef offered.
Balian frowned, but the name jogged a memory for Hugh. “That will be Haymo d’Aquino,” he declared. “He commanded the van at Casal Imbert. He’s a brutal bastard—and as loyal to the Hohenstaufen as a dog!”
“Then it will give me all the more pleasure to kill him. I only hope the Emperor loves him like a faithful dog, so his death will wound the man behind all this misery!” Balian paused and then turned to Jusef again, “What of the other women?”
“I was told the other women were all crammed together in the back of a second cart, dirty and disheveled from being dragged out of the Hospital and transported through the night.”
“And what happened after this display of baseness?”
“They disappeared into the castle of Kyrenia. Sir, I hope you won’t be angry but— well—I thought I should try to see if I could find out more, so I went to Kyrenia.”
“Good man!” Balian praised instantly. Once his message had been delivered, once Eschiva knew where he stood, there had been no need for further urgency. Collecting information was much more important than rushing back, and he was very pleased with Jusef. He was beginning to understand why Hugh looked so terrible, however. “Go on.”
“Well, in Kyrenia I tried to talk to the guards, but they chased me away, calling me rude names. Then I watched to see if anyone else was allowed in, and I discovered that the garrison sent their dirty laundry out to some washer women. So, I asked them if they could tell me anything about the prisoners. They said ‘no’ but suggested that the whores that serviced the garrison would know more.” Jusef fell silent and had he been white, he might have visibly blushed.
“Did you go to them?”
“No, sir. But I found a tavern run by a Syrian where these women went, and I asked the landlord if he’d heard anything.”
“Well done,” Balian praised again. He was becoming more and more impressed with his new squire.
“The landlord looked at me a little suspiciously at first, but then he opened up and admitted that they talked a lot. The whores claimed the women prisoners had been put into the dungeon. They weren’t chained, or at least that’s what the garrison claimed, but they were in a place without light or heat and no proper beds, blankets, or latrines.”
“Did they report if any of the women had been abused?” Balian asked, glancing at his pale brother.
“I—I didn’t ask, sir. I didn’t think to ask that.” Jusef admitted.
“No matter,” Balian assured him. “I hope you’re ready for more hard work than you’ve ever known before, because tomorrow I will knight Lucas and you will have to do his duties.” He clapped Jusef on the shoulder, just as Bella burst into the room.
“Balian! Lucas said you have a letter from—Hugh!” Bella flung her arms around her third brother and they hugged one another fiercely.
Balian waited until his brother and sister were ready to listen and then assured Bella, “Eschiva is a heroine. She is holding Buffavento for King Henry—and her heart for me.”
“I’m so glad,” Bella agreed, but her instincts had already picked up on the fact that it was Hugh, not Balian, who needed her. “What is it, Hugh?”
“Cecilia,” Hugh stammered out. “She’s in the dungeon of Kyrenia. In the dungeon!”
“With the other women of Ibelin, including Aunt Alys,” Balian elaborated.
“How dare they!” Bella burst out indignantly.
“They will regret it, by God!” Balian promised.
But Hugh could only cling to Bella and murmur, “And in the meantime, Cecilia is in a damp, windowless pit. How will she survive? My poor, poor Cecilia.”
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