“I’m worried about you. After all, I wouldn’t want to think my brother was being exploited in some way. I know how dutiful and mild-mannered you are, which makes you vulnerable to being taken advantage of. I’m just looking out for you, little brother.”
“All of a sudden!” Balian scoffed.
“Well, you didn’t seem to want my help last time we talked.”
“I don’t want your help now either!”
“Don’t be so sure of that. I had the most peculiar conversation with the king this afternoon.” As abruptly as he had sat down, Barry stood and began wandering around his brother’s chamber. “So peculiar.”
Despite his resentment of Barry’s tone, Balian was curious what had driven him here this evening. Since it could hardly be sincere concern for his condition, it had to be something else. “You were summoned by the king?”
“Not exactly. I came to talk to him about a ransom for Sir Aimery de Lusignan, but he had something else on his mind.” Barry fell silent.
Balian waited, but when his brother said no more, he prompted. “What?”
“I don’t know how to say this, Balian. Maybe I shouldn’t say it out loud at all, but we are brothers. I suppose in a way you have a right to know.”
“He’s going to propose me as a husband for his daughter Sibylla.”
“How can he? You’re already married.”
“That’s what we’ve been pretending all these years, isn’t it? But it’s not true. We’ve been living a lie.”
“Richildis was only eleven at our marriage. She was below the age of consent.”
“No, it’s not. We were married in May and her birthday isn’t until August.”
“That doesn’t make sense—or if for some reason the wedding was moved forward, I’m sure Hugh obtained a dispensation from someone.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because Hugh didn’t do stupid—or sinful—things.”
“And nor would you, would you? Which is why you’re playing nursemaid to a leper boy while the King of Jerusalem is practically offering me the crown on a silver platter. You should at least have the intelligence and backbone to be grateful. After all, if I am king, you can be Baron of Ramla-Mirabel and Ibelin.”
“I never asked to be Baron of Ramla-Mirabel,” Balian countered, but Barry wasn’t listening. Balian could see the excitement in his brother’s eyes. Barry literally couldn’t sit still because he was already envisioning himself a crowned king. He wandered fractiously around the chamber, reaching for this or that, only to set them down again and pick up the next thing. Watching him, Balian was struck by his brother’s pride. He automatically assumed he deserved this honor, that there was something about him that made him entitled to become king. Not for a second did he doubt that he had a right to a crown—much less wonder if the king had ulterior motives for what he did.
“Barry,” Balian spoke slowly and firmly, trying to counter his brother’s obvious euphoria. “I don’t know what the king said exactly, but I’ve been at court for more than a year. I’ve come to know the king. He is very good at dropping hints, making vague promises, and suggesting slightly unethical things—which he later claims to know nothing about.”
“Why would he deceive me about this? That ass Sancerre has shown what we can expect if we let the King of France choose a husband for Sibylla. He’ll just send some fool who has proven troublesome. It would be no different if we asked any other monarch. Any of them would select a candidate based on his interests, not ours. Besides, no one in the West understands our challenges. A king born here, in Outremer, is what we need, but Sibylla’s too closely related to the ruling houses of Antioch and Tripoli. The king has to choose one of his barons. Why not me?”
“Because you’re already married.”
“All barons are. We marry young for the sake of the kingdom. But if the kingdom requires a sacrifice, then a solution can surely be found.”
Balian didn’t bother pointing out that it was Richildis—not Barry—that would make the “sacrifice.” He simply asked, “Aren’t Ramla-Mirabel and Ibelin enough for you, Barry?”
“That’s not the point. Sibylla needs a husband, and if it’s not me, it might be someone far worse.”
“The High Court, not the king, selects the consort of the heiress to the crown.”
“And why shouldn’t they select me? I’m well-liked by my peers. You, on the other hand, seem set on putting our entire future at risk.”
“What on earth is that supposed to mean?”
“People have noticed your relationship with the queen.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! I don’t have a relationship with the queen.”
“No? You visit her almost every day, or so I was told.”
“The queen takes an active interest in Prince Baldwin’s education and corresponds with him. The Archdeacon of Tyre and I meet with the queen to discuss the issues raised in their correspondence and set the agenda.”
“Oh, is that why she follows you with her eyes whenever she sees you?” Baldwin countered.
Balian started. Did she?
“People are starting to talk, Balian.”
“People talk a lot of rubbish.”
“Rubbish or not, no king can allow any hint of suspicion to touch his queen, or the legitimacy of his heirs can be called into question. It doesn’t have to be true. Suspicion is enough.”
“Enough for what?”
“To hang. I’d hate to see that happen to you, little brother. Really, I would.”
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