All Things Are Lights – Day 134 of 200

The guards seized him and started to drag him to the door, not even giving him time to walk.

“God is with you, master!” Perrin cried after him.

“Go with grace, my friend,” said Guido more softly.

XXVI

After the eunuch’s guards had marched him through a series of corridors and apartments, Roland found himself in a large, brightly lit room lined with tapestries and intricately carved wooden screens.

A Mameluke officer sat cross-legged on a divan under a canopy of purple silk. His head was swathed in a yellow turban fastened by a pin of black pearls. He wore a steel breastplate inlaid with gold over his embroidered red robe, and jewels sparkled on the insteps of his pointed red slippers.

A dozen warriors arrayed in red and green silks held scimitars as they stood at ease against the walls. Slaves in vests and pantaloons crouched on the thick Persian carpet, awaiting commands.

Roland trembled with apprehension. Why was he here? Was this a trial of some kind? Would he have to undergo the Muslim version of an inquisition before he was tortured and killed?

Yet this pleasant hall was a far cry from the rooms used for imprisonment and execution. From nearby came sounds of music, the voices of men and women raised in laughter and song.

A sudden recognition penetrated his confusion. He had seen the man on the divan before.

The Mameluke’s right eye was dead, the lids crossed by a vertical scar. His other eye was a gray-blue that glittered in the light of the oil lamps beside the divan. The face was flat, the cheekbones jutting. His skin was dark brown. A long mustache of coarse red hair bracketed the lipless mouth. If the one-eyed man stood up, Roland knew, he would be tall.

Then he realized who this man must be. His heart beat faster still. Baibars the Panther, Guido had said, had only one eye.

The man had seemed frightening even in his role of a mere servant, unarmed in the midst of the crusader army. Now that Roland was a helpless prisoner, guilty of the death of an Egyptian emir, the one-eyed Mameluke was all the more terrible.

“The last time I saw you, you were holding horses for the Sultan’s ambassadors.”

The Mameluke smiled. “Now the horse groom commands armies, and the King’s interpreter is a captive.”

He remembers me. Roland felt a glimmering of hope. He might want to preserve me because I speak his language. Through me he could communicate with the King.

“You are the Emir Baibars al-Bundukdari,” he said.

In answer, the Mameluke took a date from a golden bowl on a low table set before him, chewed it slowly, and spat the pit on the carpeted floor.

A slave darted forward and scooped up the pit. Dry-mouthed, Roland swallowed hard.

“Are you hungry? Thirsty? Surely you are.” Baibars clapped his hands. He went on eating dates and observing Roland silently. He wants to keep me wondering what he is going to do to me, Roland thought. This is a man who knows how to control other men. He does not need armies to do that.

Perhaps Baibars is one of those Guido spoke of who are pleased that I killed Fakr ad-Din. But I must be on my guard.

A handsome blond boy brought a tray and placed it on the floor before Roland. On it were a porcelain pitcher and a cup, loaves of flat bread, and a bowl of fruit.

Roland looked curiously at the young slave, wondering where the Mamelukes had found him. Dress him in a page boy’s tunic and hose and he could easily pass for French.

Baibars smiled at the boy and waved him away, then gestured to Roland to sit down.

Lowering himself to the floor with difficulty because of his hobbled ankles, Roland poured water from the pitcher into the cup and drank rapidly. He tore the bread apart and stuffed chunks of it into his mouth, chewing greedily. After he had finished one loaf, he began more slowly to consume grapes, dates, and slices of melon. When the edge was off his hunger, he sat back and bowed his thanks.

“I am curious about a Frankish knight who speaks our language, which I thought none of you Christians bothers to learn,” said Baibars in his strangely accented Arabic. “I am curious about a knight who defeats and kills one of our emirs in single combat, winning a priceless jewel, and then gives that jewel to ransom a servant. I wish to know: Who is the Sire de Vency?”

Roland heard his name from the Mameluke’s lips with a small shock. How strange that this man of a barbarian race should have found it out.

I must walk a fine line with this man. If I frustrate him, he will kill me. But if I tell him too much I could hurt King Louis.

“There is little I can say about myself, Lord Baibars. I am a troubadour, a maker of songs, a poor knight, a vassal of the King of the Franks.”

“And as a vassal of the King of the Franks, were you obliged to invade my country?”

Roland tensed himself. The atmosphere in the room was like the air before a thunderstorm. He cast another quick glance around the room to see whether he was dealing only with Baibars, or if there were other high-ranking Egyptians about. He saw only warriors and servants.

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