The nursery seemed thankfully still. Either the children had not grasped the significance of the fall of Jerusalem, their nurse had managed to quell their fears, or they had simply been given enough wine to make them sleep. From the schoolroom, on the other hand, Maria Zoë could hear the angry voice of her eldest son. John was now eight, and he was a bright, alert child. He had been very cognizant of what fate had awaited them in Jerusalem—and overjoyed when his father arrived like an archangel to spirit them away to safety. That his father had decided to remain behind in Jerusalem while the Ibelin women and children were sent to safety in Tyre, however, had outraged him. He’d been too frightened to want to remain, but he’d been furious with his father, too. He was querulous now, and she could sense the rage in his voice even without hearing his words. Why, why, why did his father have to die? Why had he thrown his life away when he could have been here, with us, safe in Tyre?
Maria Zoë knew she ought to go to him and comfort him, but how could she? How could she help when part of her felt the same childish rage? Better to leave him to the seasoned and stoical Father Angelus, whose calm voice rumbled in answer to the boy’s high-pitched anger.
Maria Zoë turned and continued down the hall. The next room was silent, she noted with relief, because she had no desire to face her sister-in-law Eloise. At last she reached her own chamber and took a deep breath, knowing that her daughter Isabella would be waiting up for her on the other side of the door. Part of her would have preferred to be left alone, but what sort of daughter would go to bed when her mother had just learned she was a widow?
Maria Zoë pushed open the door to find not just Isabella but also Eschiva, her husband’s niece, sitting beside the little table by the window overlooking the street. The young women had been raised together for several years as children, and their friendship had withstood separation and marriage. They were evidently in earnest conversation, but jumped up at the sound of the door opening.
Isabella ran to her mother. “Mama! We were getting worried! Are you all right?” Isabella was fifteen years old, and even her mother could see she had left childhood behind and was now very much a nubile beauty with a womanly figure as well as a lovely face. She seemed to fly across the room to take her mother in her arms, her expression of concern both sincere and melodramatic.
“I’m not on the brink of collapse, if that’s what you mean,” Maria Zoë answered her daughter, at once muting her emotions and patting her in thanks. With their arms locked, Maria Zoë and Isabella returned to the table as Eschiva slipped onto the wooden window seat to vacate her chair for the Dowager Queen.
In this company, Eschiva often felt like the dowdy sparrow or the poor cousin. Maria Zoë might be thirty-three years old, but she was still a strikingly handsome woman. She had, after all, been selected as a bride for King Amalric in part because she was an exceptionally pretty child, and it was largely from her that Isabella had her budding beauty. Eschiva, on the other hand, had never been deemed a great beauty, and she had not withstood the trials of life as apparently unscathed as Maria Zoë. Eschiva had grieved for the loss of two infants and had been abandoned by both her parents. At twenty-two she looked more like thirty, a fact underlined by her simple linen wimple and plain cotton gown. Here in the company of princesses and queens, she remained nothing but the wife of a landless younger son—that, or the wife of a man whose brother had squandered a kingdom on a single day, the wife of the constable of a kingdom that no longer existed.
A single candle burned in a silver candlestick on the little table, but there was a silver pitcher filled with wine, another with water, and three silver chalices as well—all goods the Dowager Queen had sagely packed onto the backs of protesting brood mares as she salvaged as much as possible of her movable fortune from Jerusalem. As Maria Zoë settled herself in an armed chair softened with cushions, Isabella reached for the pitcher. “Mixed or pure, Mama?”
“I think I need it pure, sweetheart,” Maria Zoë admitted, leaning her head against the high back of the chair and closing her eyes for a moment. Then she half opened them and considered her companions. Eschiva might technically be only her niece by marriage, but she had come to live with Maria Zoë and Balian at Ibelin when her mother retired to a convent. She had remained in their household two years, and the bonds forged in those two years had never weakened. Eschiva looked to Maria Zoë more as an elder sister than as an uncle’s wife, while Maria Zoë’s protectiveness of Eschiva had been tempered by growing respect for her strength in adversity and her common sense. It was to Eschiva, therefore, that she directed her next remark: “So what have you decided we should do?”
Eschiva started slightly, surprised by the Dowager Queen’s directness, but she was pleased by this mark of the older woman’s respect for her common sense. “Well, the first thing we need to do is demand more information from Salah ad-Din. After all, we don’t know for sure that Uncle Balian is dead. He might have surrendered and been taken captive, as were our husbands.” Eschiva’s husband, Aimery de Lusignan, and Isabella’s husband, Humphrey de Toron, had both been taken captive at Hattin and were being held in the citadel at Aleppo.
Maria Zoë considered the two women before her. Both were nodding vigorously.
She shook her head and reminded them: “You know as well as I do that the burghers of Jerusalem said they would kill their own families and then sortie out to certain death before they would surrender Jerusalem.”
“But the Patriarch condemned that as unchristian, and Uncle Balian opposed it as fanaticism,” Isabella pointed out passionately.
“Men are always braver before a battle than after one,” Eschiva added, with a cynicism Maria Zoë had not expected of her. “I don’t mean Uncle Balian,” Eschiva hastened to explain, mistaking Maria Zoë’s expression of surprise. “No one can doubt his courage, but the rest of the men—they were merchants, tradesmen, and clerics. Remember, too, that no one crowed louder about fighting for Christ than my brother-in-law Guy, yet he surrendered, did he not?”
Maria Zoë only raised her eyebrows, too exhausted to give vent to her feelings about Guy de Lusignan. She reminded the younger women instead, “My lord husband broke his word to Salah ad-Din when he chose to remain in Jerusalem rather than just bring me and the children to safety. Salah ad-Din is ruthless to those he thinks have betrayed him.”
“But the Sultan sent his own men to escort you to safety,” Eschiva pointed out.
Maria Zoë dismissed her comment with a wave of her hand and retorted tartly, “He did that because he didn’t want to provoke my cousin in Constantinople.”
Eschiva and Isabella exchanged a glance. They wanted to believe the Sultan would be generous; so much depended on it.
As if sensing their distress, Maria Zoë softened her stance. “You are right to suggest appealing directly to Salah ad-Din, Eschiva. He still wants the goodwill of the Greek Emperor, and he will respond to an inquiry from me with courtesy—regardless of the news. If he has killed Lord Balian, then I can request his remains. If he holds him prisoner, I can ask what ransom he wants.” She nodded and reached for the wine.
Isabella and Eschiva drank too as Maria Zoë sipped cautiously, evidently lost in thought as she stared at the candle. “There is one thing that puzzles me,” Maria Zoë admitted softly. Her two companions looked at her expectantly. “In all their jubilation and triumph today, the Saracens failed to brag about the slaughter that had taken place. That’s not like them, you know. They revel in telling us of their bloody deeds. It was from them that we learned of the execution of the captive Templars and Hospitallers. They were proud of hacking off the heads of bound and kneeling prisoners. And they promised to ‘wash away’ the slaughter of eighty-eight years ago in a new river of blood. Remember how our escort told us that ‘If your horses walked in blood up to their fetlocks, ours will swim in blood’?”
Eschiva nodded and gripped her chalice, remembering how terrified she had been when one of the escort delivered this message with an expression of gleeful hatred. She had been sure it was a prelude to violence against them, and she had started praying frantically. Instead the red-headed Mamluke had been called to order by the escort commander, and they had been treated courteously thereafter. Isabella, however, jumped to her feet in agitation. “For all their silks and perfumes, they are more bloodthirsty than ravenous wolves! They are—”
“Hush, Isabella,” her mother admonished, gesturing for her to sit down. “The point is: they did not brag about the rivers of blood and mountains of corpses they had created in Jerusalem. They did not even taunt us with the fact that my husband’s ‘faithlessness’ had been repaid. It would have been more in character if they had described in detail the way they had tortured him to death.”
Isabella and Eschiva were staring at the Maria Zoё” in horror, seeing for the first time the nightmares she had concealed from them. This was what she had been living with since their departure from Jerusalem: the fear that the man she loved would not meet a noble death in battle, but live to be tortured and humiliated. It was a fear she had not dared breathe to anyone, because she had not wanted to add to their already considerable uncertainty and grief. She had carried it alone.
Now she looked from her daughter to her niece and back again, and something like hope shimmered in her eyes. “I’m sure they would have gloated if they could, which means it didn’t happen. Jerusalem has fallen, but there was no slaughter in the streets, and Lord Balian was not publicly tortured and butchered. So, we must find out what did happen.”
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