Isabella had heard the lookouts announce her stepfather and had slipped into the stables to hide herself there. No sooner did Balian enter leading his horse than she jumped up from her hiding place among the bales of straw and ran to him. “Uncle Balian! Uncle Balian! Have you come to take me home?”
At ten and a half Isabella was too big to be swept up and carried in his arms, so Balian bent to hug her and hold her fast for a moment. “I wish I could, sweetheart. You know that. There is nothing your mother wants more than to have you come home. I’ll have to tell you about the confrontation she had with the Queen Mother because of you.” He laughed at the memory, but Isabella had heard the subjunctive in his answer. He wished he could, but he couldn’t. She gazed at him with wide, trusting hazel eyes. “Why can’t you take me home, Uncle Balian?”
“Because the King has ordered you to stay here, precious. I am his subject and so subject to his will.”
Isabella refused to be satisfied with this facile answer. She knew she was here on the King’s orders, but they didn’t make sense to her. “But why does he want me to stay here?” She had asked Dawit the same question more than once, but accepted that he was just a servant and could not answer. She expected an answer from her stepfather. Balian was supposed to have all the answers.
“He wants you to grow up with your future husband so you will love him more,” replied Balian, trying to give her an explanation that was not frightening.
Balian was shaking his head.
“Why not?” Isabella demanded to know.
“Because Humphrey is still subject to his guardian’s—Oultrejourdain’s—will until he is fifteen.”
“But he’ll turn fifteen in two months!” Isabella protested.
“Will he, now?” Balian looked at his stepdaughter sharply. That was very valuable and welcome information that had long been lacking. Since Maria Zoë’s confrontation with Agnes de Courtenay, she and Balian had decided their best hope for Isabella was to convince the King to install Humphrey in his lordship the day he came of age. Their hope was that the King remembered his own minority sharply enough to sympathize with a young man’s desire to be free of tutors and guardians. However, they had not known Humphrey’s actual date of birth and so the date he would come of age.
“Yes, on St. John’s!” Isabella told her stepfather. Birthdays were important to ten-year-olds.
“Good. That’s not so long to wait, then, is it?” Balian asked Isabella with a hopeful smile.
“You mean we can leave then? After Humphrey comes of age?”
“Yes. That’s the promise your mother and I are going to get from the King.”
“But you haven’t got it yet,” Isabella noted perceptively.
“No,” Balian admitted, wishing for once that she wasn’t quite so bright. “But we will do everything we can to extract it from him.” This was much easier said than done, Balian knew, but it was all he had to offer. He tried to distract Isabella. “Look! I’ve brought you a whole parcel of gifts from your mother.” He indicated the saddlebag behind his saddle, which had already been removed by Gabriel and hung over the stall door.
Isabella glanced at it, but her disappointment was too great to be really interested in things. “Uncle Balian, it’s not just about me and Humphrey being together, is it?”
Balian took a deep breath. “No, it’s not.”
“What is it, then?”
“Well,” he took another breath, “some people fear that you could be used to challenge the succession of Princess Sibylla. The King is very sick, as you know, and when he dies he wants his sister Sibylla to succeed him, but he and his mother and Sibylla herself fear that some men in this Kingdom might try to have you crowned instead.”
“Oh.” Isabella appeared not to have thought of this, and Balian could almost hear her brain working as her eyes narrowed under a furrowed brow.
“I’m sorry, Isabella,” Balian said softly and sincerely—for while Isabella was just a threat to Agnes de Courtenay and a tool to Raymond de Tripoli, she was a little girl to him.
“It’s all right,” she told him, taking a deep breath and standing up straighter. “I’m glad you told me the truth. Now I can understand better.” What Isabella understood was that she might be Queen one day, and fear of that was what made her jailers keep her so closely under control. She at once determined she was going to be cleverer than they. She reached out and took Balian’s warm hand in hers and smiled up at him. “You can tell Mama not to worry about me. Humphrey loves me very much, so if you can get the King to recognize him as Lord of Toron in his own right, then he’ll take me away from here and we’ll be free. Then we can visit you at Ibelin or Nablus, and you can come to Toron. Just as soon as Humphrey is recognized as an adult.” Balian understood that Isabella had found something concrete and measurable to look forward to, and it was now up to him to ensure that the King really did set Humphrey free at his majority.
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