All Things Are Lights – Day 172 of 200

Roland’s breath came in ragged gasps. Amalric would turn over the Queen, the King’s baby son, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, all those faithful knights and servants, to the Saracens to rape and torture and slaughter. And Nicolette, too? The man is not human! Perrin, it is beyond revenge. No revenge would be enough.

“There is nothing that can be done to that man,” he said, after he got control of himself, “no punishment cruel enough to match his evil. I have always doubted whether there was a Hell, but if there is a just God, which is also hard for me to believe, there would have to be a Hell for a creature like Amalric. I wish only that I could send him there.”

Baibars’s voice struck harshly at him from the shadows. “Do not question God in my presence, infidel. I paid a high price for my knowledge of Islam, and I will not hear God mocked. If you are not sure whether you believe in your God, then you are the more fool for having invaded my country.”

The sudden rebuke served to calm Roland’s rage a little. “Very true. But I did not come here to serve God, only to serve my King. Can you show me this message Amalric sent to your Sultan? I myself believe what you tell me, because I know Amalric, but for the King I must have proof.”

“You are a bit slow,” said Baibars, and Roland saw his teeth gleam in a grin. “Perhaps you are only a Frank. Of course I cannot show you the message. It had to be delivered to the Sultan at once lest he suspect others had seen it. I do not want your King to know about it. Open and innocent as he is, he would be sure to reveal his knowledge when next he meets the Sultan, and then I and all who are allied with me will be destroyed.”

Then it is a struggle between the Sultan and Baibars, Roland thought, staring out at the great, slow-running river touched with moonlight.

“Will your Sultan make this agreement with Amalric? Take advantage of such treachery? Can he meet with the King and bargain with him as he does nearly every day, and still plan his death and the deaths of all his men?”

“Oh, yes,” said Baibars. “This way he will have the silver, and with your King and his surviving warriors dead, he can be sure the Franks will not trouble us for another generation. And he will recapture Damietta without a fight.”

Roland, in agony at the thought of Nicolette’s peril, asked, “What can you tell me of the people in Damietta? How are they faring?”

“They are as well as people in a besieged city can be. There is little food, and the weak and ill are dying off. Indeed, the Queen has ordered a great trench to be dug in the heart of the city, before the palace of the governor, for the burial of the dead — and those who will die.

“The Queen has given birth to a son. Turan Shah has told your King about this, I believe.”

“Yes, he did,” said Roland. “The King was overjoyed.” He added bitterly, “But he did suspect that the Sultan might betray him.”

“Your King shall not know that he suspected rightly. Not yet,” said Baibars. “As the Christians in Damietta do not know which crusaders are alive and which are dead. Turan Shah has not permitted that information to reach them.”

Then Nicolette probably thinks I am dead. If only I could get word to her.

“There is no need for such cruelty,” he said, angry in his frustration.

“Our Sultan thinks your people in Damietta will cooperate with him more eagerly if all of them hope they have living loved ones whom they can help to set free. They would have run out of food altogether and abandoned Damietta, but I arranged, through agents of mine, to reprovision them. In return for this, a large sum of money from the Queen’s treasury was transmitted to me — ten times what such a supply of foodstuffs would ordinarily cost. Of course, she had no idea that it was her husband’s conqueror whom she was paying so extravagantly. Or that she was only buying back food that had been previously spirited out of the city by this Count Amalric.”

“Why did you send the food?”

“It suits my purposes for things to remain as they are. I do not wish the Christians to give up Damietta before the bargaining is concluded. And the money, many thousands of bezants, will be useful to me.”

“Who could not use such a sum?” said Roland ironically.

“I shall not keep it long,” said Baibars. “But I do not wish to speak of that now.”

Roland felt him drawing closer. He tensed, knowing that Baibars was about to reveal his purpose.

“Listen, singer,” said Baibars in a lower voice. “You must swear to me that you will not speak a word of what I am telling you to anyone. If I even suspect you have spoken, my vengeance will be terrible.”

“Perhaps I will decide that the King must know of this. What if I refuse to swear?”

Roland heard a movement, the clinking of the chain mail Baibars wore under his red surcoat. Then there came the hiss, from Baibars’s right side, of a blade being slid from its scabbard.

I must show him I am not afraid.

“You are left-handed,” Roland said with forced casualness. “So am I. My left hand has been my sword hand ever since Amalric destroyed my right shoulder in a tournament.”

“You heard which side I drew my sword on? How keen of you. I hope I will not have to slice such a clever head from its shoulders. Will you swear now?”

Roland sighed. “I will swear, not because I am afraid of your sword — I have felt myself to be a dead man for months — but because I do not think you would put me in the position of betraying the King.”

“You understand me well,” said Baibars approvingly. “Among the people I was born to, those you call Tartars, the spoken promise is forever binding. I take what you have just said as your oath, and I will hold you to it.

“Hear, then. Many Mameluke lords are offended at the way Turan Shah has dealt with them since he became our Sultan. They, together with his father’s chief wife, the lady Spray-of-Pearls, guarded the empty throne until he could come from Syria to claim it. They kept the old Sultan’s death a secret from everyone — especially you invaders. He thanks us by demoting our emirs and replacing them with his cronies. Now he has charged the good lady Spray-of-Pearls with misusing the Sultan’s treasury, while he himself wastes the wealth of Egypt on his debaucheries.”

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