41 Under the doum palms - 1228
Upon our arrival in Acre, after crossing the easternmost part of the Mediterranean, we percieved the city to be split in its support. Once news of my ex-communication had spread, public support had waned considerably, and whilst my own army and several military orders allied themselves with me, others refused, and followed the hostile papal line.
The native barons had welcomed me in all eagerness at first but were wary of my history of centralization and my desire to impose imperial authority. This was largely due to my treatment of John of Ibelin, and my apparent disdain for the constitutional concerns of the barons. Even with several military orders to back me, my force was a mere shadow of the army that had amassed when the crusade had originally been called. And this reality made me conscious of the fact that I lacked the manpower to engage the Ayyubid empire in battle.
The only hope for success was to negotiate the surrender of Jerusalem.
And so, hoping that a token show of force: a threatening march down the coast, would be enough to sway the sultan of Egypt to honour a proposed agreement that had been negotiated some years earlier, we marched towards Jaffa.
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The tips of Acre had since long disappeared. Distinctive rock formations stretched out before us in all their solemn majesty. The scenery existed of a melange of brown, rocky, dusty mountains interrupted by deep craters and dry riverbeds that bloomed briefly after rain. Shadows created by these formations formed a dreamlike setting, dissimilar to anything I had ever seen. The lack of human settlements and the vast amounts of soft, silky and undisturbed dust that lay in a thin layer over the rocky underground made it seem as if we had entered another world. Fine-grained and smooth, this dazzling carpet was bright and blinding, throwing back the sun's rays with startling intensity. We went ever onward. As the vast desert appeared endless.
In the early afternoon of the third day, an anomaly became apparent on the horizon.
Before us lay a long brown stretch of water. The wadis was modest but adequate, showing short yellow grass and lines of thymelaea and doum palms. The heavy east wind made the leaves bow. There seemed to be no one close by and the man on the animal in front of me studied the line of trees. It was a young man with a small stature, a flat nose and eyes that supported an intense gaze. There were no shacks or tents where they should have been and there were no cattle anchored by the wadis that he could see.
"You've been here before," he said to his companion. As I was fluent in Arabic, but not in the dialect of the Negev Bedouins, I could but partly understand them.
"Weren't the people over there?"
"If my memory serves me right."
"They sure aren't here now."
"Can you make out any up there?"
"There's nothing that I can see."
"I'm going to take a look about," the man said.
"I know this cut. Look out for the strays."
"There's no strays up here."
"Just watch out."
Riccardo halted his ride beside me and nodded towards the line of water. He addressed me, saying: "they're good men. Aban can size it up as well as I can."
I looked out over the streak and the pits and the endless rocks behind and before and beside us and simply agreed with the man. We retreated in the shadow of one of the palms with its long hanging date stalks and I closed my eyes to the sun that ever so often slipped through the heavy, waving leaves. Auguste remained but a few steps from me and was sweating as he always was. It was not too long after that the scouts reappeared and I knew they bore bad news when I took notice of their expression.
"Somebody butchered the nomads that used to pass through here," one of them said in broken but expressive Italian. "Some tried to get out and there are bodies in the ashes. You can't smell them from here because of the wind."
"How many bodies?" Riccardo said.
"We counted thirty-two. There could be more."
"Are there any tracks?"
"Nothing. But it rained since."
The wide-shouldered scout, who had been identified as Aban spoke up: "they've been dead a week anyway. Birds are working on them."
"No one can say exactly. But it's a week."
I turned my gaze to the wadis. "How is the water?"
"It looked all right, your majesty."
"Did you taste it?" Riccardo said.
"I don't see who or why they would have poisoned the water," Aban said.
"You shouldn't have tasted it."
"It smelled good and there was no reason to believe it was poisoned. Bodies are too far off to influence it."
"Who killed the people?"
"Didn't you verify?" Auguste said.
"Could have been anyone. Bandits. Rivals. But I know they've got nothing to do with us."
"Alright," Riccardo turned to me as Auguste still bore the scouts a disagreeable look. "We could have camp set up, your majesty. I'm going to take a look myself. Chances are small the wind will turn, and as long as the men don't go searching for it, we won't have any problems."
"You're sure? I don't need to wake up tonight hearing that some of them went and got themselves into trouble."
"They shouldn't be able to do much wrong. The only danger it could hold is the men's morale when seeing it."
I looked about and knew this place to be the best option, however lugubrious.
By the time camp was set up, I was fully recovered from my exhaustion of the day, and my attention was piqued by the desert that stretched out in all its solemn emptiness. It was an excruciatingly vacant sight. Not a bird on the horizon. The underground reflected the light in every direction and sported a broken brown tint. The dust itself took on the appearance of watered silk with wide stripes.
I was marvelling at this magnificent view on the very border of the encampment when Riccardo appeared. He didn't seem to notice my presence and began a series of soundless observations. Then, once finished, he went and leaned his back to the wall of rock behind; his eyes straying over the same scenery I had been admiring with a mixture of disconsolateness and unease.
Then he suddenly addressed me, and with the informality with which he did so, one might have thought that we were simply continuing a conversation we had already started.
"See," he said. There lay a sense of melancholia in his eyes that was not quite his own. "It's alive."
"The plains; the mountains."
I was sure that he expected no replies from me, and it seemed pointless to pitch in with an abundant 'yes' or 'indeed'. Rather, he was simply talking to himself, as if he were meditating out loud. I did not care for the absence of illustrious titles and honorifics, and momentarily enjoyed the rapture that came upon his visage as he spoke. Because when Riccardo spoke this way, he was transfigured, and it filled me with extraordinary excitement.
"There," he went on, "out there lies true existence. Small groups, clusters of tribes, free, if ever they were! If only..."
Riccardo finished his sentence with a vehement gesture. Then, addressing me directly, as if to drive away an ugly thought:
"Your majesty, do you see the beauty of this barren land?"
"You used to live here, didn't you?"
"In Arish. And Jaffa, at some point. Yes."
His eyebrows wove together and he nigh spat with a tone of repellence and ignominy: "I do not care for Cairo."
"Did you ever encounter the sultan?"
"I did not."
"Then what do you know of him?"
"He's a frightening man. Not on account of his temper, as many will tell you, but rather his disingenuousness."
"I see. Is it not probable that he disseminated frightening reports of himself to create an image that would strike fear in the hearts of his opponents?"
"But you don't share the sentiment."
"Not in the least."
"What do you think our chances are?"
"Limited. But that doesn't make it impossible, or even improbable. It might even become plausible."
"It's what one does in the face of adversity."
I was about to retire to my tent for the night when I heard him inquire:
"Do I have your majesty's consent to ask a bold question?"
"What is it?"
"What happened to Alcamo?"
"None of your concern." I turned back round in the direction of my tent. I had not spared a thought for Julius since long and had no intention to commence then.
Oh,- how I excel in lying to myself.
An inexplicit laugh seemed to play along Travato's lips. Pushing himself off the wall, he approached me in the brazen manner of an individual certain of his right. Walking alongside me he proclaimed:
"I know for a fact that that man would not leave your side if the world were to crumble, much less let you depart for the campaign without him."
I was unexpectedly amused by his surmise and allowed him his presumption. Regarding the shadows of horses passing by and my tent in the distant where the outline of my guards could be seen and the scuffle of a running man carrying water; drops were spilt against the side of a tent and their trails left slender streams as the droplets rolled off the fabric, I said to him:
"Perhaps I will one day tell you."
I spend that evening in the company of this exciting, brazen individual. Riccardo Travato was an ardent man. And,- as I came to understand, a compelling storyteller; throughout the evenings during our march down the coast, I would come to invite him more often, and a likeminded affability established between us, build on good humour rather than courteousness.
And so the fair sun set on the barren world I found myself in. Its decreasing rays alighted the army settlement one last time before it disappeared behind the horizon and the rocky plains and craters became undistinguishable from the rolling hills. The undulating desert, punctuated by long shadows thrown upon the earth by the sparse vegetation, resembling looming columns resting upon the fine underground. Wind stirred up the wispy carpet as it beat down mercilessly upon the fabric of our tents. I kept my stiff, dry hair hidden beneath a shawl whilst the loose raiments I enveloped myself in, whom were scalding and adhesive during the day, became inadequate against the cold of the night.
"I grew up as as part the lower aristocracy," Riccardo told me as he reclined in the cushions of the seat opposite mine. Whilst the furniture within my tent was sparse, it could easily sustain me and a guest. "My father's family had its origin in a village in the mountains of Mentone, but thanks to his exploits within the army of the former sultan, he had been allowed to marry my mother, whom was more than capable to provide for him after his injury, thanks to her family's fortune and the business she mananged. My mother was a progressive woman in character, a disposition by no means advantageous to a married woman with children - namely my two brothers and me - to succeed to her name and position. In the sense that it made her an enemy of the aristocracy within the city - whom despised her when regarding our grand family fortune; even more so in the knowledge that the general poverty of the capital was quite grave in those times."
"Is it better nowadays then?"
"Under the current sultan? I wouldn't know. Nor can I bring myself to care for it. There will always be poverty as there is anywhere you go." He continued: "It began with Ganiya, by then but a girl two years older than me. My particular fondness for her only developed throughout later years. She was a radiant woman whose very character should have kept her from alining herself with men as unfortunate as me, yet infatuation makes a person weak; in that regard, she was so very vulnerable." He sighed and whispered something in a language I could not make out.
"I must have been eleven when she was presented to me as my future bride. We became close quite quickly, and an unlikely friendship formed between us as we grew. For years we lived as siblings rather than betrothed." Pausing briefly as he gifted me a forlorn smile, he said:
"Our happiness lasted until the day her father fell into disgrace. Her parents were killed beside her entire household whilst Ganiya managed to escape. How she did it, I never came to understand. For days she vanished in the streets of Cairo before she was forced to flee into the desert with nothing but a horse she stole from her father's stable and water for two days. It was suicidal. I begged my mother to take her in, but she and my father wished to have no affiliation with the daughter of a household barnished as traitors, no matter their past friendship. Nowadays I understand it must've been hard on them as well, but I, being young and compulsive, held my friendship with Ganiya in a higher regard than the prestige of my family or even my own future. I shunned all I had without second thought, once more demonstrating how easily I took it all for granted. My father roared. My mother threatened. My siblings shook their heads and cried. I made a stone of my heart and let them disown me. Shun me. As if I had never existed. With nothing but a horse and provisions that would last me half a week, I took off. Never had I gone out by my own, much less into the wilderness of the desert."
He took the time to study the ceiling before continuing. Regarding the patterned grills above with pensive eyes, he sighed in a manner that was nigh unnoticeable.
"My horse lasted me four days."
He kept shifting in his seat. Crossing his legs, leaning his chin from on hand on the other. He looked as if he might pass from self-consciousness. I didn't wish for him to feel abash yet before I could voice this thought, he turned his gaze towards me for the briefest of moments before it fell towards his hands.
"I was lucky enough to be found by a band of outlaws before I perished in the desert,- and there I met her for the first time; Amana al-'Aliyya. The brigand duchess."