All Things Are Lights – Day 160 of 200

Two Saracen warriors with drawn scimitars strode into Sahil’s tent. Their gold-trimmed breastplates and helmets identified them as men of the halka, the Sultan’s Mameluke bodyguard. They spoke to Sahil and motioned Louis and Roland to come with them.

King Louis, Roland noticed with admiration, walked with as regal an air as if he were in his own palace.

The Sultan’s men marched them briskly through the Egyptian camp, whose warriors turned to stare in openmouthed curiosity at the tall, serene figure of the captive King of the Franks. The tents they passed were arranged in orderly rows, not scattered about at the whim of their owners, as in French camps.

Roland felt abashed, ashamed even, among the Mamelukes. These so-called slave warriors had crushed Christendom’s best knights.

Their guards led them to a tent-palace, a series of huge, interconnected domes of yellow silk stretched over frames of lightweight wood. The plank floors were covered with thick carpets woven in intricate designs of red and gold, blue and green. The pavilions and their silken cushions and bright hangings looked graceful and comfortable. Moment by moment he felt dirtier and clumsier. We are barbarians compared to these people, he thought.

Roland had lost count of the pavilions they had passed through when Louis and he came to the largest dome of all, where a semicircle of a dozen turbaned men faced them. The light cast by brass lamps glinted on jeweled sword hilts and corselets inlaid with gold. A spicy odor of incense masked the smell of burning oil.

Roland had to force himself to look directly at these men. He and the King were facing their conquerors, the rulers of Egypt.

In the center of the group a stout man with the dark, heavy features of a Turk reclined on the red, green, and yellow cushions of a gilded divan. His lips, thick and red in the midst of his glossy black beard, curved in a supercilious smile. He reminded Roland of the well-dressed knight who had spoken unconcernedly of the deaths of the foot soldiers.

A Mameluke officer standing to one side of the tent said, “You must kneel to the anointed of Allah, His Majesty Turan Shah, the Sultan of Cairo.”

Knowing it would be death to show disrespect, Roland fell to his knees, but Louis only bowed deeply.

“Tell them, Roland, that the King of France may bow in courtesy to a brother monarch, but he is forbidden to kneel to any but his holiness the Pope.”

This is the end of us now, Roland thought, but he translated without hesitation. To die at the side of his King would not be a bad death. As he spoke, he noticed Baibars sitting beside Turan Shah. A small smile played about the Mameluke emir’s wide mouth.

Turan Shah shrugged off Louis’s response. “My father told me that Emperor Frederic did not kneel to him either. Of course, they met as equals, not as conqueror and prisoner.” He looked about him at the Mameluke commanders for appreciation. Several of them nodded and chuckled, but Baibars was expressionless.

He does not play up to the Sultan as the others do, Roland thought.

Turan Shah took a grape from a gold platter beside him and popped it into his mouth. There were two or three jeweled rings on each of his fingers and one on his right thumb. He gestured to Louis and Roland to seat themselves on the carpet.

The audience proceeded with a slowness that felt maddening to Roland, desperate to get back to Perrin. Louis showed no sign of impatience, though Roland was sure that he too must be in agony. His men could be dying under the scimitar even as he sat here. The Sultan ordered food and wine to be brought. Louis, barely recovered from the flux, declined the fruit, but he quickly tore a flat, circular loaf of bread into small pieces, which he ate with relish, washing them down with wine. Turan Shah also drank wine, as did most of his officers, but Baibars did not. Strict Muslims, Roland recalled, drank no wine, and it was water Baibars had served him at their first meeting.

Roland found himself admiring the one-eyed Mameluke more and more. Have a care, he warned himself. Baibars’s qualities make him the most dangerous of the lot.

“Now,” said Turan Shah, when the repast was finished, “why does the King of the Franks honor us with this visit?”

Louis pushed himself to his feet, Roland rising to help him. “Your warriors have been beheading my poor foot soldiers. They have killed hundreds of my men already. These are helpless men who laid down their arms and surrendered to you in good faith. Had they not surrendered it would have cost Your Majesty’s soldiers many lives to overcome them. They do not deserve to be butchered like animals. I implore Your Majesty to order the killing stopped.”

“What killing is this?” the Sultan blustered. He turned to Baibars with an appearance of anger.

Roland’s stomach turned with disgust. The Sultan’s air of surprised indignation seemed transparently false.

“Why,” said Baibars without a trace of embarrassment, “does not my lord Sultan recall? As you ordered, the Christians who cannot ransom themselves are being slain. First, of course, being given the opportunity to save themselves by converting to Islam. Your Majesty said that we could not feed so many Christian captives.” Baibars’s voice was cold and matter-of-fact.

Turan Shah gave him a poisonous look.

“That was the famous Baibars the Panther who spoke,” Roland said to Louis after translating the emir’s words.

Louis bowed to Baibars. “I have just been told that you are the Emir Baibars who led the Sultan’s army to victory over mine. You have given me grief that will last me a lifetime, but you are a puissant foe and a master of warfare. I salute you.”

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