The water in which Eschiva had bathed had warmed to room temperature by the time Balian stepped into the tub and sank down with a sigh. Behind him Rahel helped Maria Zoë out of her surcoat and gown, and then withdrew. Dressed only in a loose, sleeveless silk shift, Maria Zoë settled herself on the towels around the base of the tub and soaked a sponge in the water before she began to wash her husband methodically with the olive-oil soap.
It was Balian who had taught her the pleasure of this task in the early days of their romance, by insisting that she send Rahel away and let him bathe her. It had since become a ritual between them, a way of enjoying each other’s body without the frenzy of lovemaking or sleepiness getting in the way.
Zoë loved Balian’s firm, muscular body, but this evening as she worked by the fading light of dusk, she didn’t like what she saw. “Blessed Virgin Mary! Is there an inch of you that is not bruised or cut?” she exclaimed in growing alarm as she ran her hand gently down his back, charting the various hues of black, blue, red, green, and yellow left by the blows of men who had tried to kill him. One huge bruise spread from his shoulder halfway down his arm, and from the crusted cuts on his forearm she could read just how intense the fighting had been—how close he must have been to a fatal wound, to death.
“Probably not,” Balian conceded grimly.
Zoë stopped stroking him and laid her hand on his arm in a gesture of sympathy. With alarm she realized that he was tense rather than limp with languid pleasure as he should have been now that the danger was past. At dinner he had joked about it. He should have been in the mood for coddling and feminine flattery. But he was not.
She studied his beloved face, darkened now with an unfamiliar growth of beard, and she saw beyond the cut on his cheek to the dark circles under his eyes and the chapped lips. More important: he did not meet her eyes.
“What aren’t you telling me?” she asked, certain that she was not going to like the answer.
“At dinner we made light of it,” he answered, and Zoë thought he meant the battle. Lusignan and he had certainly made it sound like a lark, a great adventure, a close-run race but a Christian victory. They had guffawed together about how ridiculous the Templars had looked—“fleeing like a bunch of geese with outstretched necks,” Lusignan had claimed—and they had laughed so hard that Zoë had known it could only have been from pent-up tension and relief. “You mean how close the King came to capture?” she ventured.
“That, too,” Balian admitted. “And Daniel earned his knighting, by all that’s holy—though I’m not sure he’s really ready for it. But . . .” He sighed. “What I meant was that I didn’t want to upset Eschiva. She’s got enough to adjust to just now.”
Zoë nodded, glancing over her shoulder to the window that looked toward the keep. She could not see from her current position whether the light was still burning in the bedchamber there, but Lusignan had been eager to take his bride to bed. Now all she could do was pray. She looked back at Balian wordlessly.
“There’s only one reason Lusignan came with me—although I daresay he’s not regretting it,” he added, with a glance in the same direction as Zoë the moment before. “But he had no recollection of Eschiva as a person. He only came to secure control of Ramla and Mirabel—and to keep my greedy hands off them.”
“What do you mean? Is your brother dead?”
“Not yet, but there’s precious little I can do to save him.” Balian bent and splashed water into his face and then rubbed it vigorously with his wet hands, as if he could wash away his guilty conscience.
“Let me,” Zoë urged. She squeezed water into a sponge and then rubbed it against the bar of olive-oil soap until it was well lathered. Then she started gently but firmly rubbing the sponge in circles under Balian’s ears, down his neck, and across his shoulders, filling the sponge with more soap as needed. When she finished with his back, she gently pushed him against the padded rear of the tub and started to work on his chest and arms.
Very gradually he relaxed enough to confess. “The Sultan has set a ransom I cannot pay, Zoë. A ransom I could never pay, even if I plundered Eschiva’s inheritance, as well as everything my father gave his life to win.”
“How much?” Zoë asked practically.
“It’s not a ransom, it’s a death sentence. The Sultan is punishing me for bargaining so hard about those three worthless youths!” Balian burst out, the wine and the exhaustion and his nakedness combining to rob him of his self-control and exposing his raw feeling.
“How much?” Zoë repeated.
“You don’t want to know.”
“Yes, I do. Tell me.”
“Two hundred thousand bezants.”
Even after his prelude, the sum took Maria Zoë by surprise. She had thought Balian was being melodramatic to prepare her for bad news. Now she realized that he had been deadly serious: it was a ransom Ibelin, Ramla, and Mirabel could not pay. A ransom they would not be able to pay even with help from her dower lands of Nablus.
“Lusignan thinks the Sultan may be negotiated down.”
“I should think so!” Maria Zoë answered indignantly. “He must know we cannot pay such a sum. Ibelin can’t raise a tenth of that after what he did to it! Ramla and Mirabel—maybe fifty thousand, Nablus another fifty thousand. Do you think the King . . .” She fell silent, but her hands continued absently to rub the sponge in gentle circles.
Balian slid down and dunked his head under water. He reemerged, brushing his wet hair back from his face, and shook his head. “If the King offers, I’m not too proud to accept, but I cannot ask him.”
“Um. I was thinking of something—someone—else. Princess Sibylla.”
“How could the Sultan know something like that?”
“Don’t be naive. Oriental rulers always have a network of spies. Didn’t you once tell me King Baldwin was served only by Muslim slaves? How much do you think it would take to persuade one of them to send little messages back to the great Defender of the Faith? Besides, regardless of how he knows, it explains everything.”
“Forgive my Frankish simplicity, but I’m not following you.”
“Salah ad-Din believes he holds in his hands the next King of Jerusalem—and he’s asking a king’s ransom. You’re quite right that he doesn’t expect Ibelin, or Ramla and Mirabel, to raise two hundred thousand bezants, but not because he wishes to see your brother dead. He simply wants to see the Kingdom of Jerusalem poorer—maybe even divided and internally weakened—by raising such a huge sum for a man who is not yet crowned nor anointed. Alternatively, he may even hope to expose Sibylla’s relationship with Barry and thereby discourage Burgundy from honoring his promises.”
Balian looked at his wife with a kind of wonder. It was now almost completely dark and it was hard to see more than contours and shadows in the corners of the room, but light from the moon caught on Zoë’s oval face, and she had never looked more beautiful to Balian. She had cleaned more than the dirt from his body; she had taken the sense of guilt from his conscience.
She smiled at him and added in an almost playful tone, “And if Sibylla won’t pay, we’ll send your brother to my great-uncle. He’d like the idea of the future King of Jerusalem being deeply in his debt.”
“Until he finds out Barry won’t be the next King of Jerusalem, Burgundy will be.”
“What do you mean, ‘maybe’?” Balian pressed his wife, looking at her hard. “The King has already agreed to his terms and sent his ambassadors bearing gifts. He’ll come as soon as he can.”
“For a man who has been offered a kingdom, he seems rather slow to seize it.”
“He must settle his affairs in Burgundy first.”
“Of course,” Maria Zoë agreed lightly, for it made little difference to her if Balian saw things her way in this matter or not. “I am probably wrong—but so long as Salah ad-Din and my great-uncle think as I do, we can exploit the situation to your brother’s advantage.”
“That’s a pretty daunting trio to dare question,” Balian noted wryly, before reaching up a dripping arm to pull her to him. The sudden motion caused water to slosh over the edge of the tub. Zoë let out a stifled cry of surprise before their lips touched in the darkness. Then, framing Balian’s face in her hands, she
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