Sons of War

A/N: I'm back! Can't make any promises about future updates, but I do think about this story quite a bit, and I want to finish it. Let's just take it one chapter at a time.

Disclaimer: This is alternative universe, but the characters are mostly not mine.

Chapter 6: Living the Lie

In the dimness of the room, it was hard to make out anything except silhouettes and shadows. That did not bother the King. He could barely see these days, and relied on scribes to read out documents to him. With this failing health, it was only a matter of time before there was a new king on the throne. All he could do now was to make sure his successor would not be facing internal turmoil.

Such turmoil seemed more and more imminent as tension escalated within the court itself. It was something that no one spoke of, but they all knew about it. If there was the slightest overbalancing of power and favour, everything they had worked so hard to build would fall.

The stone that would make all the difference, at present, was Reynald de Châtillon. Discontentment had been brewing in the 'Hawk' faction for years, and Reynald's arrest had only escalated that. The Hawks had support from Europe and from the Pope. It was of utmost importance that the Hawks be placated.

"You surely cannot mean to release Reynald, Your Grace?" asked Raymond. "He is a wild beast that cannot be controlled!"

"I wish I had no need of it," said the King. "But Reynald is only one of many. The Templars support him, and if this kingdom is to stand, then we cannot have one faction fighting another. You know that as well as I do, cousin."

"But you promised Saladin that he would be punished."

"And he will be. I may spare his life, but he will be stripped of his lands and he will not leave Jerusalem without permission. That is the most I can do, for now. I regret it, but I simply do not have the time. I am dying, you know. I must prepare for the accession of my sister."

Raymond, Count of Tiberias and of Tripoli, understood what his king was saying, but the thought of releasing Reynald made him uneasy. There was no knowing what that man would do next. He had too much influence amongst the Hawks. Guy, in particular, listened to his every word and more often than not, took his bad advice. It was bad enough that fool Gerard de Ridefort was now the Grandmaster of the Templars. As far as he was concerned, they had no need of another bloodthirsty barbarian stalking the court of Jerusalem.

However, the King was right. The Hawks needed to be placated and he supposed this was an acceptable compromise. Stripping Reynald of his lands and powers and confining him within the city was like pulling the teeth from the jaws of a mountain lion. He could still roar, but his ability to destroy would be reduced, even though it would never be completely eliminated.

"I am relying on you, Cousin, and Godfrey, to keep him in check," said the King. "I know he is dangerous, and I know he will cause trouble before long."

Gilles le Fouillon was so named because his long thin nose and squinting eyes reminded everyone he met of a weasel. He had come to the Holy Land in search of gold and glory —mostly gold— and instead, he had found a patron in Godfrey of Ibelin. He had hoped that having a lord would help him make his fortune. That had not happened yet, so far, and he was beginning to wonder if he ought to be doing something else.

When he had first set off for the Levant, he'd imagined a land of milk and honey, and gold, of course. That was what the Bible had said about it, at least according to the constantly drunk and barely literate priest who celebrated mass in his village. What he had found had been a patch of dirt.

So when Princess Sibylla's husband approached him, he became very curious indeed. Guy de Lusignan, being the lord of Ascalon, was a very rich man. Certainly he was richer than Godfrey of Ibelin, even if he was not as prestigious.

"You were with Balian of Ibelin when he was captured at Kerak," said Guy.

"That's right, m'lord," said Gilles, wondering what Guy could possibly want with a man like him. He couldn't read and he wasn't the best fighter.

"How did he secure his release?" asked Guy.

"The Saracens jus' let him go," said Gilles. "They let us go too. I don't know why."

"He made a deal with the enemy."

"He did? I didn't hear about it. How do you know?"

"He did, and that is what you will say when you are asked."

"And why would I say that? I have nothing against Lord Balian."

Guy smiled. "How is this for a reason?" He pushed a heavy velvet bag across the table towards him. Gilles heard the tell-tale jingling of metal. The radiance of the gold astounded him and made his mouth dry. He had never been so close to so much money before.

"There are fifty gold dinars in there," said Guy. "Do what I say and there will be more where that came from."

"What do you want me to do, m'lord?" whispered Gilles. He wasn't really thinking about what he was saying. His eyes were focused on the gold. How beautiful and bright it was, like little discs of sunlight. He'd been waiting for this for so long and finally, it was within his reach.

"It's simple," said Guy.

It was too quiet. Usually, Sibylla would not have minded some peace, but something felt wrong about this calmness, as if the world was taking a breath before something catastrophic happened. She rocked the crib absent-mindedly, singing a French lullaby. Little Baldwin slept soundly within. Sometimes, his fingers would twitch and he would make a few soft sounds. She wondered what he dreamed about.

Outside, there was a sudden commotion. She heard Catherine's protests and Guy's voice raised in anger. Guy knew what anger was? That was new.

"Milord, you cannot disturb them!" The argument drew closer. Sibylla forced herself to remain calm. If it was going to come then it would come, whatever it was.

Guy burst into the room. There was a madness in his eyes that she had never seen before. "I know," he hissed at her. "I know everything."

She stared at him with an unwavering gaze. The liquor on his breath was strong, and it gave him the courage to be angry. His anger further fuelled his courage. However, if she knew her husband, which she believed she did, then his courage would fade in time. "What do you know, milord?" she asked coldly.

"I know about you and Ibelin," he said. "Heads will roll, Sibylla. I have it all in place. They will be branded traitors to the kingdom for consorting with the enemy and they will die as traitors for their affronts to me! It's over, Sibylla. Over. I have someone willing to testify against him. Your lover, that blacksmith, is a dead man."

She didn't know what to say to that. This was a side of Guy she'd never seen before. She knew he would suspect that Baldwin was not his son, but the notion that he would actually confront her about it had never crossed her mind. It was completely unimaginable. And what did he mean about the Ibelins? Surely he could not accuse them of treason? There was nothing to accuse them with! Yet, he was so sure of himself that she could not help but wonder at what he did have. He'd surprised her once. What was to say he would not surprise her again?

"Remember who you are talking to, milord,' she said at last, keeping her alarm well-hidden.

He gave a harsh laugh. "How could I forget, milady?" he asked mockingly. His words were slurred, but the bitter poison lacing them was clear. He stumbled away from her, still muttering to himself about rolling heads under his breath. As soon as he was gone, Sibylla called Catherine to her.

"I need you to take word to Balian," she told her maid. "No one can see you. Tell him that Guy is somehow going to accuse him of consorting with the enemy. Someone is willing to give false testimony. I don't know how and I don't know who, but tell him to be careful."

Dust made the air hazy. Catherine kept her head down. In her innocuous garb, no one realized she was from the palace. Still, she kept on glancing back every now and then to make sure no one was following her. The Ibelin house was on a quieter street in the city. The guards recognized her and opened the door for her. Godfrey's men were well-known for keeping their masters' secrets.

Godfrey was not home, but his son was. Catherine had never seen a man look so defeated and determined at the same time. It wasn't hard to understand how her mistress had fallen for him. It wasn't just because he was handsome. Balian of Ibelin had a heart. A truly good and honest heart. It was rare in any man, much less a nobleman. She passed on Sibylla's message. "What will you do?" she asked.

"I don't know," he said. "But I promise that nothing will happen to the little prince. Nothing."

She believed him.

Guy had something on him. Balian didn't know what it could possibly be, but if Sibylla's judgement was to be trusted, and he trusted her, then he was confident that he would be successful in accusing him of treason. Balian might not know much about politics, but he knew that if he was going down, he wouldn't be going down alone. His entire family would be implicated. His father, his brother, his niece…

"This is it," said Baudouin. "You've ruined us all! Now we will all die with you."

"That will not happen," said Balian.

"How are you going to stop it? You are a blacksmith. You know nothing of this," spat the older brother.

"That's enough," said Godfrey.

"I may be a blacksmith, brother, but I am not a fool," said Balian. He turned to his father, knowing that his plan would be met with a barrage of protest, but what other way was there? "You have to disown me and turn me in. Tell them I am not your son, that I somehow tricked you into believing that I was your son."

"That is insanity!" said Godfrey. "You are my son, and I will not hand you to the wolves like a lamb on a platter!"

"Father, listen to him," said Baudouin. "He's making a lot of sense."

"I owe you my life, and I cannot ruin your lives," said Balian.

"And what of the honour of this family?" asked Godfrey. "You are asking me to lie to save myself."

"Please, Father," said Balian. "You must do this; if not for yourself then for my little niece. She is an innocent child. Don't let her be dragged into this." He knew he'd made his point. His father stared at him. Unshed tears made his eyes look bright. Godfrey pressed his lips together and finally nodded. Without saying a word, he abruptly turned on his heel, no doubt to make the preparations. Balian watched him go. Silence roared around him. His blood rushed past his ears. Suddenly, he felt the need to sit, to regain his breath. He would never quake in fear, but he could not deny he was afraid. But this was right. It was the only way to save them.

"Perhaps I may have misjudged you," said Baudouin. "But will you go through with it?"

"I made a promise, brother. I never make promises I cannot keep," said Balian.

"Let us hope you do not break," said Baudouin. "There is no knowing what you will face."

The commotion reached even her inner sanctum. There were angry cries and shouts of outrage. Sibylla looked up from her embroidery. She was too far away to make out the exact words, but it wasn't often that such a fuss was raised within Jerusalem itself unless her brother was holding court, and she knew that wasn't the case. Mere moments later, her maid rushed in, her face pale save for two red spots of exertion on her cheeks.

"Milady," she said. "It's Lord Balian…"

Sibylla suddenly stood, spilling the coils of thread and needles from her embroidery basket. A spool of deep red yarn unravelled as it rolled away from her feet, leaving a crimson trail. "What about him?" she whispered.

"Lord Godfrey says he is not his son, that he is a traitor," said Catherine.

Her blood rushed to her head. She felt faint, and if her maid had not been there to catch her, she would have fallen. "He's made his move," she whispered. She knew what he was doing. No doubt he had planned it all. She should have known that he would do something like this. She wanted to scream, but she couldn't. She wanted to weep for him, but he was a traitor now. How could she weep for a man who had, supposedly, betrayed her kingdom?

"What will you do?" asked Catherine softly.

She didn't know what she was going to do. Catherine's voice sounded hollow. Everything seemed to be smothered in fog. She moved without her own knowledge, groping blindly for something to hold onto, but there was nothing. Nothing at all. Her blood rushed past her ears. She was drowning in fear, drowning in sorrow. Finally, her fingers touched the edge of Baldwin's crib. The child lay within, his brown eyes gazing up at her with infinite wisdom and innocence. If it wasn't for him, Balian would not be in this position. If it wasn't for him…

Sibylla knelt down beside the crib. Balian knew what he was doing. She could not blame her baby for that. Her beautiful boy, who looked so much like his father. She reached down to stroke the baby's cheek. He turned in the direction of her touch. Even if it killed her, she would raise this boy to manhood. That was the only thing she could do for Balian.

"What?"

Guy couldn't believe it. His plan had been so perfect, but somehow, that blacksmith had managed to ruin everything. He wasn't an Ibelin? Why did that have to be revealed now? And was it even true?

"That, I had not expected," said Reynald. "I must say I didn't give Godfrey enough credit. I didn't think he was capable of doing something like this."

"What do you mean?" demanded Guy.

"Well, I don't know if this peasant is an Ibelin or not, but this way, we won't be able to tie him to the other Ibelins. Even if he dies, he dies alone," said Reynald. "Think about it. We know the boy probably did not consort with the enemy, and I wager Godfrey knows that as well as we do. It's genius. Brutal, but genius. And it also means that someone told them about our plan."

Guy kept silent. He wasn't sure, but he might have let slip some information to Sibylla that day when he had charged into her rooms, inebriated and furious. He couldn't recall exactly what he had said, and he wasn't about to admit he had done such a thing. "It doesn't matter," he said. "Balian is the one I want. As long as I have him, I am content."

The door of his cell slammed shut behind him. The bars cast shadowy stripes across the straw strewn stone floor. Apart from the occasional crackling coming from the dim smoky torches, it was silent in the dungeons beneath the city. He sat on the stone bench. Chains weighed down his wrists and restricted his stride, not that he was going to be walking anywhere any time soon. He thought of his family. This was the only way to protect them, and he regretted nothing. The thought that his father and brother and his little niece was going to be safe sustained him. And, of course, there was a beautiful unreachable princess and their perfect son who would one day be the king of Jerusalem.

Thinking of them gave him some comfort and helped to dull the fear that gnawed at him. He had to admit he was terrified, not of death —he wasn't afraid to die for people he loved— but the path that would take him there. Stripped of his titles and all the protection that being Godfrey's son offered him, his enemies could do whatever they wished with him, and for certain, he had enemies. Powerful ones.

Courage was not the state of having no fear. That was stupidity. Courage was the willingness to do what was right in spite of fear. Balian was more than prepared to do what was right. He'd sworn it.

He lifted his head when he heard voices coming down the corridor. They drew closer, and he recognized the men to whom they belonged. Reynald, Guy, and Gerard de Ridefort; three of the most influential men in the kingdom were going to spend time with him, a peasant from France who had somehow managed to fool all the lords in Jerusalem into thinking that he was a nobleman's son.

"Well, what do we have here?" said Reynald, peering in through the bars. In the dim light, his eyes resembled black pits in his weathered face. "It looks wild." Balian remained silent. No matter what they said to provoke him, he would not rise to the bait. He had expected all of this, and much worse. "And it's insolent."

"We can change that," said Guy. "Milords, it's time to teach this cur who its masters are."

"A warning, milords," said Gerard. "He must be fit to appear before the court when the king summons him."

"What?" asked Reynald incredulously.

"He will have a trial," said Gerard. "The king is going to ask too many questions if he appears in court with bits of him missing."

"Don't concern yourself with that, Gerard," said Guy. "It won't be damaged much. I intend for it to sing."

King Baldwin was no fool, and he prided himself on being an excellent judge of men. In the past, perhaps, he might have erred in his judgement, but years of experience had honed his instincts, and everything about this unfortunate incident was suspicious. He doubted Godfrey would have taken in an imposter under the mistaken notion that he was his son. He doubted Balian had the guile to do such a thing. Most of all, he doubted the claims that Balian had somehow committed treason.

But this had to be dealt with. The claims were serious and could not be dismissed, and if the truth did not come out, then he would have no choice but to execute a good man upon whom he had placed so many hopes, because it was not everyday he saw a man so clearly distinguished from his peers. Balian was made for great things, and it would be a terrible waste for him to die for no good reason.

He summoned Godfrey and Raymond. The former seemed to have aged many years in the span of a day. There were shadows beneath his eyes, and grey stubble covered his cheeks. His shoulders slumped, as if he was carrying a burden that was too heavy. His old teacher was always very easy to read.

"I suppose you know why I have summoned you," said the king.

The two men nodded.

"It is alarming that someone can impersonate a nobleman of this court for so long without being detected," he continued. "However, I doubt that is the truth. The truth is what I seek."

There was no response, except Godfrey seemed even greyer than before, if that was even possible.

"What happened, Godfrey?" asked Baldwin. It pained him to see his old teacher like this. When he had been young, Godfrey had seemed so undefeatable. He'd looked to him as a father, since his own father had often been absent from his life. It had been Godfrey who had first discovered he could feel no pain. It was Godfrey who had taught him to ride even as his body deteriorated to the point where it had been an effort just to remain sitting in the saddle.

Godfrey shook his head.

"Nothing will leave this room, but I cannot help you if I do not know what is going on," said Baldwin. "I do not believe Balian conspired to infiltrate your house, nor do I believe he would betray this kingdom. I would be a despot to kill a man for something he did not do, but that is what I will have to do if you do not help me to reveal the truth. So, as your king, I command you to tell me everything."

It was all going to be over soon. His wrists were raw and bleeding from where the metal manacles cut into them as he hung suspended between two posts driven into the ground. His feet barely touched the floor.

He tensed as the lash split his flesh and curled around his torso to tear red marks into his belly. His wounds stung as sweat trickled into them. An involuntary grunt escaped from his throat as the lash struck again, rending raw flesh. Red lines adorned his back, crossing over one another like a red net. Blood ran from his wounds, down the backs of his legs to soak the straw strewn floor below. He thought of Sibylla, of the little prince, of the reason why he was doing this. It made the pain more bearable.

"Ah, so it isn't a mute," said Reynald. The man grabbed Balian's face and forced him to look at him. "Are you going to sing for us, cur? Tell us of the deal you and your father made with the infidels. Oh, yes. He says you're not his spawn, but I know better. Why should you let him leave you here to take the fall for him?"

Balian said nothing. He had nothing to say, and he was not going to give Reynald the satisfaction of hearing him scream. He might be a dead man, but he was a proud dead man.

"I guess not," said Reynald. "Not yet." He held out a hand. An iron was handed to him, the end of it white with heat. Balian clenched his teeth and looked away, but even so, a cry of pain was torn from him as Reynald pressed the hot iron into his wounds, cauterizing the raw flesh. "Well, it does have quite a voice on it."

"It's not the right tune, Reynald," said Guy.

"Patience, milord," said Reynald. "I'll teach him yet." He held out his hand for another heated iron. Pain shot through him as the white hot metal burned the sole of his right foot. He screamed as the thousands of nerve endings were seared.

"How do you like that, little bastard?" asked Reynald. "Are you ready to sing for us yet?" Balian sucked in lungfuls of breath. He might not be able to stop himself from crying out in pain, but by God, he was not going to talk. They could torture him, maim him, kill him, but he would never tell them anything. There was too much at stake. Compared to that, his life was nothing. Balian closed his eyes and prepared for the worst. Then he heard a voice, as if sent from Heaven, except his father was hardly an angel. However, to Balian, Godfrey might as well have been an angel.

"Cease at once!" The baron's voice echoed in the vast corridors, reverberating off the walls and it seemed to shake the very foundations of the city. Godfrey stood at the entrance of the cell, flanked by loyal Ibelin men and Brother John.

"Godfrey, I had not expected your company, considering this embarrassing business with your family," said Reynald. Godfrey ignored him.

"I have direct orders from the king," he said. "Lord Raymond and myself will be conducting the interrogations." He held out a rolled-up piece of parchment to Guy. The blood-red wax seal bore the king's emblem.

Guy broke the seal and his face paled as he read the edict. He nodded to Reynald and Gerard. Without saying another word, he stormed out of the cell. The other two followed him. Gerard gave Godfrey a hard stare, which the other man returned with disdain. Finally, father and son were alone.

The court was filled to the brim with noblemen and the spectators who were just here for sport. The king sat upon his throne; regal, masked, unmoving. Despite his crippling affliction, he was the pillar of stone upon which Jerusalem rested. To his left was his sister. There had never been such a beautiful woman gracing the court of Jerusalem ever since her mother fell from favour.

Godfrey took his usual place beside Raymond. The count had been told of almost everything that had transpired, except the secret of the prince's conception. Godfrey had sworn to take that secret with him to his death. If anyone ever found out about it, then everything Balian had sacrificed, that he himself had sacrificed, would have been in vain.

A hush gathered as the prisoner was escorted into the court. Balian held himself stiffly, as if every movement caused him pain. Every now and then, he stumbled, only to be hauled back onto his feet by the men guarding him. He did not look at his father. He did not look at anyone. The baron swallowed as his son was led before the court like a common criminal to answer for crimes he did not commit. His only mistake was that he'd loved the wrong woman.

This was entirely his fault. No, really, despite what Baudouin kept on telling him, that this was Balian's mess, Godfrey could not help but blame himself. If only he had been there to guide his son through the murky waters of politics. If only he had kept a closer eye on him, then perhaps it would not have come to this. Every wound on his son's body, every burn and every bruise; he might as well have inflicted them himself.

There was nothing more to be done. Now disowned, Balian was no longer a nobleman, and the rights that nobility could claim did not belong to him anymore. Reynald might not have had the king's permission to do what he'd done, but as a lord of the realm, it was within his right.

The charges were read out. As the evidence was listed, things looked increasingly worse. Balian had befriended a Saracen. That very same Saracen had released him. With a few flourishes, it could be easily made to look as if Balian had really made a deal with the enemy to secure his own release.

"Who can bear witness to these allegations?" demanded Raymond of Guy as the herald finished reading. "You have no witnesses, do you, milord?"

"In fact, my lord of Tiberias, I do," said Guy. Another man was brought forth. Godfrey recognized him. He'd taken pity on the man years ago, and now he wished he hadn't been so merciful.

Gilles le Fouillon knelt before the king, next to the man whom he'd sworn to serve. He would not look at Balian. At least he had the decency to feel shame, but not enough to prevent him from bearing false witness. For what price had Balian's life been sold? Godfrey would really like to know.

"What is your name?" asked the king.

"Gilles of Fournier, Sire," said Gilles, his voice quavering.

"Is it true what they say about this man, Gilles of Fournier?" asked the king.

"Y-yes, milord," said the man.

"Tell the court what you saw, Gilles," said Guy.

"I-I saw this man making a deal with the Saracens. In exchange for his life, he was going to work for them and betray the kingdom of God!"

Murmurs rippled through the gathered crowd. They could think of no worse crime than this. This was treason, not only against the king, but against God also. Guy smiled, thinking that he had succeeded. And then, without warning, Maria stood. All eyes turned to her. The Dowager Queen hardly ever interfered with the affairs of state, preferring to watch and listen. However, when she spoke, everyone paid heed.

"If I may, Your Grace," she said. The king nodded. She stepped down from the dais slowly, taking care with each step. Her silken skirts rustled. She stopped just before Gilles. The man was visibly trembling now. Bearing false testimony was one thing. Facing questioning by the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem was something else entirely.

"Monsieur Gilles, what exactly did you see?" she asked.

"I saw this man making a deal with the Saracens to work for them if they let him live," stammered Gilles.

"He made a deal even though it was almost certain he would be ransomed?" asked the queen. Hushed silence fell over the court. "What was the deal?"

"He…he's going to spy for them and give them all our secrets."

"How do you know this?" asked Maria.

"I heard it, milady," said Gilles.

"So…this man makes a treasonous deal with the enemy in the open in front of twenty or so men who may or may not turn him in once he returns to Jerusalem despite the fact he was most likely going to be ransomed even if he were not released," said Maria slowly, making sure the meaning of her words sank in. "What exactly did he say?"

"I…I can't remember," stammered Gilles. Beads of sweat appeared on his brow. He dared not look up, lest Maria saw the lie in his eyes.

"No?" said Maria. She turned to the gathered noblemen. The Dowager Queen might not be capable of wielding a sword, but a woman such as her had no need of weapons made of iron. Godfrey only wondered why she was helping his son. "Is there anyone who can verify your claim?"

"No, milady," said Gilles.

"So you are the only man out of the twenty prisoners who heard what took place between Balian of Ibelin and the Saracens," she said. "That is very strange, because I saw them return to Kerak. Unless they were all part of the scheme, then do you mean to tell us none of them heard anything?"

Of all the people who could have stepped forward to save Balian, it was Maria who had done it. Maria, who had little emotional ties to anything or anyone, had managed to keep a clear head. Godfrey wondered why he had not thought of it. Then again, he hadn't known who had betrayed his son or how they were planning to do it.

Things did not go so smoothly for Gilles after that. Maria turned it around on him, accusing him of framing an innocent knight. She tried to drag Reynald into it, but Reynald had not survived for so long by being a fool. He distanced himself from the unfolding disaster and claimed the man came to him. Gilles' house was searched, and they found fifty gold dinars in a chest. Reynald took the chance to accuse him of being bribed by the Saracens to help them get rid of a good Christian knight. No one would take a treacherous mercenary's word over that of a lord. Gilles was dragged screaming into the dungeons to await his trial.

Godfrey paid no heed to it. He rushed to his son. "Undo these irons!" he barked at the guards. They fumbled with their keys, stunned by what had happened. Balian was hardly able to stand. Each step he took made him grimace, and his face was etched with pain.

More blood had soaked through the thin linen shirt he wore and he winced in pain when Godfrey's hand touched his back. The older man's fingers came away sticky.

"I thought he was not your son, milord," said Reynald.

"It was a misunderstanding," said Godfrey, who wanted nothing more than to deprive Reynald of some of his teeth for what he had done. It was the least that the man deserved. However, that would not be a diplomatic thing to do. The king would not approve. Besides, he needed to get his son home where his wounds would be seen to.

The threadbare linen stuck to the drying blood. Balian sucked in air through his teeth as Brother John gently peeled the fabric off him, revealing the myriad of lacerations on his body. His back was a mass of raw flesh that still seeped. He lay on his front as the Hospitaller cut the linen shirt away from him. Occasionally, he winced, but he did not complain. He had nothing to complain about.

"How is he, John?" asked Godfrey. The older man's fists were clenched and his face was white with rage as the extent of what had been done to Balian was revealed inch by inch.

"He's a survivor, like the rest of you Ibelins," said John. "Now, can you please go and wait outside? I cannot work when you are looking at me like that."

"But…!"

"I will call for you if we need you," said John. "Right now you are giving me unnecessary distraction." Godfrey reluctantly did as he was told. Balian had the feeling he wasn't used to taking orders from anyone except the king. The Hospitaller cut away the last of the shirt and began to sponge away the congealed blood with a damp cloth. Balian hissed and tensed.

John rinsed the cloth several times in the water until it became red with blood before resuming his work. "You will bear these marks for the rest of your life," he said, shaking his head. "I am sorry."

"I still live," said Balian. "I am grateful for that."

"Yes. If you look at it that way, you are very fortunate you got away with only a few scars. There is no known extent to Reynald de Chatîllon's cruelty." The Hospitaller withdrew a few dried leaves and roots from a leather pouch and crushed them with a mortar and pestle, adding water to it to make a paste. "Hold still. This will burn."

When the poultice made contact with his wounds, Balian wondered if he was being flayed alive. Fire shot through him and it didn't subside until his throat was raw from holding back in his cries. As it were, a few whimpers escaped him, and cold sweat broke out over his body. John bound his wounds with clean linen bandages and gave him a brew to drink.

"I will be back in a few hours to change your dressing," said the Hospitaller. "In the meantime, rest, and don't think about anything."

"That was a failure," said Reynald.

"I hadn't counted on the Greek vixen interfering," said Guy as he paced. "What now, Reynald? I cannot suffer him to live."

"You can't touch him now," said Reynald. "Even if the king didn't love him, the rest of the court seems to. The Dowager Queen already suspects us of trying to frame him, and I wouldn't cross her."

"But you are Reynald de Chatillon!"

"And she is Maria Comnena, Dowager Queen, mother to a princess and great niece of an emperor our leper king doesn't want to offend."

Guy stamped his foot, knowing fully well he was behaving like a petulant child, but what could he do? Even Reynald's hands were tied. Balian would have to die by some other, much less legal, means. That would take a lot of planning, and after this failed attempt, the Ibelins were on their guard. They made for terrible enemies.