Maria Zoë’s head was filled with questions that Walter could undoubtedly answer. For example, was Balian looking for a wife? And if so, where? And if not, why not? But she dared not ask.
“Did you come directly from Jerusalem, your grace?” Walter asked in the vacuum left by her own silence.
“Yes, we did.”
“Then could you be so kind as to tell us the latest news? Is it true Salah-ad-Din has left Damascus?”
“Yes, he has returned to Egypt. Our spies suggest there was a revolt, but Salah-ad-Din is said to have ruthlessly suppressed it with terrible bloodshed.” Maria Zoë had been with the King when this word was brought to him by a Syrian Christian who traded in ivory between Cairo and Damascus. “Our source says that he sealed off the quarter of the city in which the rebels lived and sent his men in to slaughter the women and children house by house until none survived.” Maria Zoë shook her head in aversion at the story, adding, “And now he is preaching jihad and threatening us with the same fate. It is said Salah-ad-Din has vowed to drive the Kingdom of Jerusalem into the sea.”
“Then this is an odd time to visit Ascalon,” Balian remarked softly, coming in the open door.
Maria Zoë started at the sound of his voice and looked up with racing pulse. He was exactly as she remembered him—no, he was much more handsome. Two years ago he had been a knight in her husband’s service: young, strong, tanned, and earnest, as befitted the only knight who dared serve a leper. Now he commanded a city, and his new position gave him stature. But the eyes were still the same molten bronze. No, they weren’t. They were much bolder. He looked her straight in the eye as he approached, and it took her breath away.
Balian’s skin was flushed from the steam bath and glowed with oils, and he smelled of balsam. His hair was still wet and looked almost black, but the drying strands looked as soft and silky as Maria Zoë’s own when her hair was freshly cleaned, only straight rather than curly. Balian’s chin was slightly darkened with the promise of a beard to come, as he had not taken the time to shave. Maria Zoë heard her heart thundering in her ears—and registered that this must be what the troubadours meant when they sang of a knight making his lady’s blood burn.
Balian had crossed the room, and he bowed deeply over her hand. “Welcome to Ascalon, your grace. I regret that without warning, we could not provide you with a more suitable welcome. I hope Sir Walter has been behaving himself and has made you feel at home?”
“Sir Walter is a paragon of chivalry, my lord,” Maria Zoë answered smoothly, too conscious of the turmoil of her emotions to realize how cool and aloof she sounded.
Walter had jumped to his feet when Balian arrived, and Rahel had stood, too. She again gestured to the seat she had occupied.
Balian shook his head to Rahel, gesturing for her to resume her seat. He looked over his shoulder and found a smaller chair, which he grabbed and placed before the table. “To what do we owe the honor of your presence in Ascalon, your grace?”
Balian could not have been more formal, and Walter wanted to kick him. That’s no way to court a lady, he wanted to shout at his lord, not any lady—much less one of the most beautiful creatures on God’s earth, with a queen’s dower portion on top!
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