Author's notes: Not just movieverse but a truly horrible thing – a movieverse AU. Meaning, it not only contradicts history, it contradicts the movie too (albeit in one small detail only) and goes from there. I tried my damnedest to make this non-AU, but it just wouldn't budge, so here it is.
Rated T for darkness and disturbing imagery, and for rampant sentimentality that may require a robust stomach. Consider yourselves warned. The title translates as "Behold thy heart"; it is from Dante's Vita Nuova (yes, it's cor tuum, never mind that rather lovely piece of soundtrack).
I can't believe I even wrote this.
Tiberias has a belated revelation, or possibly more than one. Set after Kerak.
Vide Cor Tuum
Not even his own King's tent compared to this. The many rooms, leading into each other like a maze. The curtains softly billowing in the air. The filtered light. It was not even hot in here.
And it was quiet, quieter than he had ever found a soldiers' camp. There was no movement in the adjoining rooms. Sometimes voices drifted in from far outside. He wondered if they had been told not to disturb their lord's guests.
Dusk would be coming soon. They would have to leave, to return to the city. Soon.
His gaze shifted sideways. Flickered away and came to rest. The King was breathing quietly, the gloved right hand resting by his side, the newly bandaged left laid on his breast. The silken veil that covered his face moved with his breathing. In the dim light it almost hid what lay beneath.
"This is what we do," the physician had said as he hid that face from view. "It is better than a mask."
Maybe. But a king needed a face, even if it was a face of silver.
It is as it should be, he thought. They don't know. Not one of those who followed him today. I didn't. Good God, it's only been a few hours since...
Watching as the world hung suspended between the glittering battle lines. Watching those two under the cruel sun, the King a still white flame, the Sultan a majestic raven. A better world. It burned itself into his mind – when had he begun to commit moments to memory like this?
Watching as the King turned his palfrey, and Tiberias could only guess at the soft words back to the Sultan, for the King's voice never carried – I am going to Kerak. Will you come?
He had been shaking his head then, half-incredulous, his sour smile hiding his soaring heart – Once again, my lord – even as part of his mind was screaming But he must rest. And yet another part was wondering wryly if his King quite knew what he was doing, inviting the Sultan to witness what was to come – and answering, a moment later: Yes. He does. And he had spurred his horse to follow, and his knights had followed him as they always did.
It had not prepared himself for what was to come, however.
At Reynald's greeting – flamboyant, cringing, genial, everything at once – he had felt his hatred flare until it well-nigh choked him. Because of this they had been riding out. Because of this –
The King was failing. Still holding up his head but dismounting from his kneeling steed with painful effort – too much, too much already, Tiberias had thought on driving his own horse closer and dismounting too, and had seen Hugh and Giles and young Ibelin do the same. But he knew better than to interfere.
He caught his breath when the King dragged the glove from what was left of his left hand. He had not known the ring was underneath. He had rarely seen his liege in such a mood before.
"I am Jerusalem. And you, Reynald... "
And then he watched in sickened disbelief as Reynald mouthed that hand – what did it take to bring that dog to heel? – and thought: He is mad. And: This must stop. And something snapped. For the King raised his hand and struck, and struck again, the silver handle of his riding crop flashing, and Tiberias stood and gaped, not certain for a moment that he was seeing his gentle lord.
Gaped at the strength in those blows, the sudden fury – at the betrayal or what else? – and if he was startled Reynald was thrown right down into the dust, blood trickling. But a moment later the King was swaying too, and even as Tiberias started forward he collapsed without a sound, the white cloak billowing and settling, the bared hand like an open wound in the dirt of Reynald's court.
He had been on his knees a mere thought later, gathering him up and barking for the guard, leaving him in his knights' arms – and they knew their job he knew – but it did not abate the furious sting of having been too slow. He should have seen this coming. He turned on Reynald instead, with savage pleasure.
When he was done, a shadow slid across him. Looking down from his beautiful black mare with deep-set eyes, the Sultan said: "If you will send your army back to the city, I offer your King the hospitality of my own tent."
He had looked over towards the litter waiting in the poor shade of the wall. He had thought of the long road back, under the noonday sun. They could not stay here, under Reynald's roof.
And thus this camp, this tent, the cool dim shade, the sumptuous bed. The cup of rose-scented water offered him by Salah ad-Din himself. He had voiced his thanks, and taken a sip, and all but forgotten it a moment later. His memory retained the faint amusement on the Sultan's face just before he disappeared, seemingly into thin air.
Instead the knights had clustered round, a living wall. He had sent them away. He had a feeling they would not be needed. More, he did not want them underfoot. They need not see this. He wanted quiet to attend to more important things. The King had been in a dead faint when they lifted him from the litter.
The Sultan's chief physician was an old man, gray-bearded, with shrewd and kindly eyes. He brought two younger men, who brought an assortment of boxes and basins.
"Forgive the poorness of these quarters," he said in oddly-tinted French. "This is not Damascus. There your lord would receive all the care that is his due. Here, this is all that my master can offer."
"You master's hospitality honors us, and your services are most welcome," he had replied, remembering his manners this time, and stepped aside to allow the old man to approach. For a few moments he stood over him, arms crossed; then he relented, sitting down on a low stool by the bed.
He watched in silence as the physician pulled on a pair of soft brown gloves and reached for that mutilated hand. Held it and looked at it, two fingers resting on the wrist, and then he looked up and met Tiberias' eyes.
"I must remove this helm."
Tiberias half-rose. No one. No-one saw the King without his mask, not any longer. Not even he. Not during their games of chess, their long discussions. Not in the deepest night, standing by the window, all lamps extinguished.
"Why?" he demanded.
"He is exhausted. It will ease his breathing. Also, he needs to drink."
Tiberias sank back onto his seat. The man was right. Of course he was right. What did it matter, after all? There was the King's own physician, back in the city, the body-servants – they had seen, and often –
The thought still turned his guts. He would not wish it.
He lifted his hand and let it fall, not graciously but acquiescing.
The physician motioned to one of his assistants, carefully raising the King's head a little on his arm. Tiberias set his teeth. It had been how long? Ten months? A year? Or rather more than that? It would be worse than what he remembered, he told himself. Much worse.
That youth was nervous. Fumbling with the helm, the delicate aventail – Tiberias frowned and was about to rise again when the old physician waved his assistant aside and set to work himself. A few deft movements of the long old fingers, a brief approving nod – at the workmanship? he found himself wondering while a hollow feeling spread inside him. Very carefully those hands framed the silver visor and lifted off the helm.
From the corner of his eye he saw one of the young men recoil. He heard one word, quiet and decisive: "Mayya." Water. And then the old physician's robes blocked his view, and Tiberias dropped his head into his hands.
My King. Oh, my King.
Bile rose into his throat. He fought it down. Tears started to his eyes, furious and scalding. He clenched his teeth to keep the sound from rising to his lips. It still burst from him – a gasp, a retch, a sob, a choking, horrible sound. He felt his nails tearing into his scalp, savagely, drawing blood. He ground his hands into his eyes and listened to the distant racking sobs until they faded into silence.
When he lifted his head the old man's eyes were on his work. Bending over the lesions in that hand, one of the youths holding the basin, eyes averted. Tiberias straightened. That physician – he held that mutilated hand as he might have held a jewel.
A few moments later the man looked up, sensing his glance, perhaps. "My master says he fell."
Tiberias nodded once.
"I must add to this injury to tend to it. I would –" A moment's hesitation. "I will be a little time about it, and he may wake. I would cover his face again, because that is his will."
Tiberias nodded again, and made as if to reach for the helm, and the physician shook his head.
"Leave it. He will rest easier without it. Let me show you – there is a great lord at Damascus wears a veil before his face. This is what we do..."
And he had been about it for some time, but the King did not wake. There was no feeling left in that hand Tiberias knew. He had shifted his gaze from the physician's work – there was blood there now, and the old man's face utterly still, eyes on his task – to the face half-hidden by the veil.
He had seen worse. A lifetime of warfare in Outremer... He had seen worse.
It has not been that long, he thought. When did I see him last?
Years, more than likely, he answered himself, his stomach churning. Years.
He remembered a youth on a gray charger thundering past the ranks. Stopping and turning easily in place, cantering back to face the cluster of his barons – riding without his hands entirely, the reins clasped loosely in his right, which was on his thigh. Showing off, he had thought with silent hilarity, feeling Guy fume next to him, aware – like everybody else including, of course, the King himself – that he couldn't have copied that for his life, not like that, and neither could anybody else there...
He remembered the confident lift of the head, the lesions disfiguring the face beneath the battle helmet. When the muster had taken place he could not recall.
And that time they had been sitting over that chessboard, the game forgotten or never begun, debating something or other, and the King had laughed and saluted him with his cup – he had been wearing a veil then that covered his face but for the eyes, like the Bedouin did. And Tiberias knew, he knew that he had said once and bluntly – he did not remember the occasion – that he could bear the sight, there was no need to consider him – and the King had replied, very quietly but still with a hint of humor, shaming him utterly: "It is myself I am considering, Tiberias"...
And then, late one night it had been that he had called and clearly unexpected, some news that could not wait, and the King composed and immaculate, only the half-empty glass by an open book telling him that he had not been wearing the mask a minute earlier...
Years. And he could not even remember what had been when.
Ten years since that coronation. Ten years, no more. A lifetime. And in the course of those years, never forgetting, he had forgotten. Even while he had seen – he had seen – how circumspect the King had become, how careful in exerting himself. How rarely he was even on his feet. Never a moment's weakness. Ah, my lord, he thought, his throat suddenly tight. You had me fooled too...
He almost started when the physician straightened, placing the King's bandaged hand on his breast with infinite care before meeting Tiberias' gaze again. The two young men quietly started to put things away, both looking pale.
"My master bids me tell you that you are free to return to the city whenever you wish. But he would recommend you wait for dusk."
Tiberias nodded once more. "I am much beholden to your master, and to you. We will."
"I will give you a tincture for your lord to bathe his eyes. It will ease the trouble."
Tiberias frowned. "I do not know if –"
"He does," the physician insisted gently. "I will leave you both to your rest now."
And he had taken himself off, himself and his assistants with their gear. When he was gone Tiberias realized that he had not said a word about the King's illness.
He had been sitting there since then, listening to the quiet breathing that now was only that of sleep. At some stage he had noticed the ring on the small table where the physician had put it, and got to his feet to retrieve it, and now he felt the weight of it in his hand. And slowly he had become aware how quiet it was. How... peaceful.
He stretched out his legs before him, thinking that he might just take the old physician at his word and rest – sitting by his sleeping lord in the midst of an enemy host, and that he was in no hurry to return. He even closed his eyes for a few minutes, thinking of that meeting under the sun, and of that day's campaign, and how it had come to nothing. How those two had bought them another reprieve.
And there it was, the thought that had been creeping up on him that this was it –
It had been the last reprieve, and dearly bought. They would return to the city and not ride out again.
What will become of Jerusalem, he heard himself thinking dispassionately, and then: Does it truly matter? What is Jerusalem worth? Was it ever worth it?
He had been pondering that selfsame thing, sometimes, in his office or in court or in the field. But even as his faith was waning he had found another, and it had been enough.
This was my strength, he thought, amazed, as if the thought had come to him for the first time. Even while I was his – but all things were coming to an end, and all strength failed, eventually.
One evening there had been when he had found him half-prostrate before the cross in his study – and he did not know why he had even been admitted when the King was so manifestly unaware of his presence – and he had thought of a faint, some fit, some weakness, and had been across the room and on the floor before he realized that his lord was sobbing, sobbing – dry breathless gasps and a despair he could not fathom...
Hospitaller should have been there, he was better with these things, it was his calling. But he hadn't been, and Tiberias had already been on his knees, and he could not just withdraw, even if that, perhaps, had been what he should have done. And so he had reached out and gripped the King's shoulders, and felt him go abruptly rigid in his hands and silent. And he had murmured "My lord," just to let him know who it was that was holding him, and made a movement as if to raise him up, and heard a rasped "Tiberias?" – and then, after a moment: "Forgive me –"
"No," he had said and pulled him up, repeating "My lord, my lord" for lack of anything else to say, and for a minute sat there holding him, utterly exhausted, on his shoulder, silently raging at God and all His saints in every tongue he knew –
He had never asked. They had not spoken of it afterwards. But then there was not much point in asking, and nothing to speak of. He had known before, or guessed. It had been the last time he had seen the King lose his composure.
All for this, he thought. Everything for this... this vision, this Jerusalem of yours. And while you live, it lives, this impossible thing – a kingdom of conscience...
Godfrey had called it that, and had believed it too. And had been right to.
But when he falls, he thought, Jerusalem will fall with him.
He could not remember who had said it first, or even if it had been he himself. Jerusalem will fall, he heard his mind say now, clearly and coldly, and his heart did not miss a beat.
As well it might. Ashes and dust; sun-baked stone and squabbling fools. They can have the stones, he thought, and still his heart was silent. He had believed the stones worth fighting for, once, as if a spirit could be encased in stone and made to stay. That this was why he was here.
How like you, my lord, he thought without rancor, to remake a man and never know it. But then you would yet ride out to remake the world...
It lives but for a little while, but still it has lived. Worthy of Hospitaller, that. And we – we live and die with it. He shook his head. His lips were twitching; he did not know with what.
A gleam of white at night by a high window. Head tilted slightly to one side, considering some answer, until he almost thought he could see an expression on that impassive face. That voice, soft and gravelly and resonant like a somewhat battered flute...
A sound nearby made him look up. The King had turned his head, taking in the surroundings, perhaps; and then he saw the fingers of that gloved hand suddenly clench.
"My lord," he said quietly, so as to make his presence known.
"Tiberias?" – a voice like a cracked flute still but duller, hoarser now than he was used to. A moment later the hand came up to feel for the mask that he already knew not to be there. A silence, one breath's length – two. Then: "I did not wish for you to see this."
"I have been sitting here for some time, my lord," he said. "I can bear it."
"Then you know now what is left of me," the King said softly after a bare moment. And continued before Tiberias could reply: "This is Salah ad-Din's tent?"
"Yes, my lord. You have been here for... three hours, perhaps."
"The army? And Reynald?"
"Both on their way to Jerusalem."
"Ah, good." The King half-raised his left arm to look at the bandaged hand. "What did they do?"
"The physician thought you had hurt yourself when you collapsed. He cleaned the injuries I think. But I did not see all of it."
A low, hoarse chuckle. "Nor would you wish to. Hence – this?" The gesture indicated the veil.
"He understood it to be your will. Also he may have meant to spare you the sight."
"A sight to distress me?" There was a hint of mockery in the soft voice now. Tiberias resigned himself to the fact that he might as well give it up. It was he who had been shaken to the core, not the man he was speaking to. The thought was as bracing as it was humiliating.
"Rest, my lord," he said instead. "I will be here."
A sigh that might have been a Yes. The King turned his face to one side and grew still. Tiberias shook his head a little, and found his fingers had clenched around the ring, and opened them to look down on the heavy gold. I can bear it, indeed, he thought wryly. What was I fearing?
Strange how that flawless silver face with its faint, enigmatic smile was already slipping in place over the ravages he had seen, replacing them as it had replaced the fading memory of the radiant boy-king he had known. This is how I will remember him, then.
And then and only then it came to him, the sudden knowledge of the loss awaiting, the rent about to tear his world apart, and it was like a stab to the innards, and it was all he could do not to gasp.
All those years ahead, he heard himself thinking, aghast. I will miss you, my lord. O my sweet lord, how I will miss you, and I do not know –
"Are you weeping, Tiberias?"
"Would you," the King said softly after a pause, "have me go further down this path? I would do it, and so would you... but if God has decreed otherwise at last, I would ask you to let me go, and not to grieve."
He drew a careful breath. "If God is God," he said, "I need do neither... Forgive me, my lord."
"God is God," the King confirmed, almost speaking to himself. "He has His reasons... I shall be glad to learn them." He shifted restlessly. "I must get back to the city. There are things I must see to –"
"You should sleep, my lord."
"Not now." A brief sigh. "I will do that very soon. Although," he added with a spark of humor, "I could rest here... Will you help me, Tiberias?"
"Gladly," he said, and when his lord silently held out his hand there was nothing for it but to help him sit up, and support him when the King drew a gasping breath and closed his eyes, getting his bearings – and he wanted to protest, but he knew better. And so he brought him some more water and then helped him put on the helm, the King one-handedly assisting until his hand dropped from sheer exhaustion. He heard a sigh as the silver slid down, hiding the ruin of that face, and took it for relief until he saw the King turn his head away.
"It was a brief life, my friend. But I am tired."
Tiberias dropped to one knee in front of him at that, but he could think of no words, and none seemed to fit. The King's face was lowered, the eyes behind the mask in shadow. For a bare minute he longed to put his forehead on his King's knee and rest, just rest – prolong this hour of peace that was already ended. Instead he reached for the gloved right hand and brought it to his lips, holding it there.
He heard the breathed "God bless you." He felt the fingers trying to tighten around his. And then the King said, more softly still: "Protect Jerusalem for me if you can, Tiberias..."
He froze. But you are Jerusalem, he wanted to say, and I could not –
He felt the seconds trickling by. He groped for an answer that was not a lie.
"Your Jerusalem, my King," he said, his voice harsher than usual in his own ears, "will long outlive us all. That much I promise."
"So be it," said the King, almost inaudibly, and for a moment Tiberias fully thought he would slump forward into his arms. But he did not.
"Call my litter-bearers, Tiberias," he said instead, "and I must speak with Salah ad-Din before I leave."
He went and found a youth loitering in one of the outer rooms, and dispatched him and returned, telling his liege that the Sultan would call on him presently.
"It is well," the King said, and added quietly: "You may have to keep me on my feet, Tiberias – but I will try to meet our host as befits him."
And when a rustle and murmur and the moving curtains announced a visitor he helped him to his feet, and heard a sharp gasp and found that he supported his full weight on his arm and side. Then he had to turn away, let go for one precarious moment to reach for that white cloak. And from the corner of his eye for that brief moment he saw the King of Jerusalem once more – confident and upright, serene and flawless in the blue surcoat and white armor, the fivefold cross gleaming on his breast. And Tiberias gathered the white cloak up, and turning back he quietly fastened it around his shoulders.