“The king was extremely generous, Madame,” the Count of Tripoli intoned. He had requested this interview with the widowed queen to go over her affairs with her. She had not been seen in public since the death of her husband, except at her husband’s funeral and the coronation of King Baldwin IV, four days later. On both occasions, she had been completely veiled. Tripoli hoped this was an indication of her grief and disinterest in state affairs because he wished to persuade her to retire from court. He did not want the dowager queen interfering in his government; she was too closely connected to the Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire.
Maria was dressed for this meeting as she had been at the funeral and coronation: entirely in black. She had opaque black veils covering her face and black gloves on her hands, reminding Tripoli of the way Muslim women dressed if they ventured onto the streets. She sat at the table before the window, her hands folded in her lap.
“Continue, monsieur,” her voice was low and melodic with an echo of Greek inflection.
“The king has willed you various personal items: icons, books, rings, crosses, enameled goblets, an ivory box, a carved chest…many of these items were gifts from your great uncle for your wedding or from your trip to Constantinople.”
“He also left you several of his hunting birds and provided 20 bezants annually to cover the salary of a certain Peter le Noir, a bird handler it would seem.”
“Yes, Peter is very good with the birds.”
“You are to be allotted a suitable suite in the royal palace for your personal use until you choose to remarry.” Tripoli hastened to add, “You are, of course, under no compulsion to marry, Madame, as you are not an heiress. You will, however, require the king’s permission to marry, unless you choose to return to your native land.”
The queen stirred uneasily and then asked. “Is that what you think I should do, Monsieur?”
“Not at all, Madame. I simply wanted to be clear that, should you depart the kingdom permanently to return to the land of your birth and your people, you would be under no further obligation to obtain the king’s permission for any future marriage. Nor would such a move in any way impinge upon the grant of an annual income of 1,000 bezants from the Royal Treasury. This will be paid to you wherever you go. However, I must also inform you that your most important endowment is the royal domain of Nablus. This, of course, is not transferrable or inheritable. It is yours only as long as you live and remain within the kingdom.” He paused, surprised that she showed no reaction on learning about such a stupendously generous dower portion. “You know Nablus?”
“I have visited.”
“It is, Madame, one of the richest in the entire kingdom. It owes no less than eighty-five knights to the feudal levee, making it the fourth-largest barony after Galilee, Sidon, and Jaffa. The current viscount is a certain Ulric, who has held the position for a decade or more. A very competent man.”
“I’ll be the judge of that, Monsieur.”
“Of course, madame.” He was annoyed with himself for provoking that rebuke. Ulric of Nablus wasn’t worth it. “Shall I continue, Madame?”
“Yes, you were telling me about Nablus.”
“Exactly. The barony is predominantly agricultural, but the city contains factories for soap and perfume manufacture.”
“The city is unwalled, as I recall.”
“Yes, and the citadel is quite small. However, there is a large and modern Premonstratensian monastery, which would, I’m sure, be happy and able to provide you with suitably luxurious accommodation, should you prefer a more reclusive—”
“No. I am nineteen-years-old, my lord; I am not ready to bury myself in a cloister.”
“Of course not, Madame.” He bowed his head to her.
“The region was predominantly Samaritan in Roman times,” Maria noted.
That took Tripoli by surprise. Her ignorance of Nablus was not so great after all. “Ah, yes, there is still a large and active Samaritan community, Madam. I believe they maintain a school for Talmudic studies there and several workshops that produce manuscripts.”
“The Samaritans were extremely rebellious. More than once, the Imperial government had to put down bloody uprisings.”
To his annoyance, Tripoli recognized she knew more about the history of the region than he did. He gestured vaguely to acknowledge her remark without engaging her further on the topic.
“When traveling through, I noticed that most of the villages have no church.”
“That is correct. The bulk of the rural population is either Muslim, Jewish, or Samaritan. Only the city itself is largely Christian.”
“There have been raids in the past.”
“The most recent one was twenty years ago, Madame, no reason for alarm.”
“I am not alarmed. I simply like to know the situation. Do the Templars or Hospitallers have a presence in the barony?”
“The Hospitallers maintain their second-largest hospital there, after the one here in Jerusalem. It has both men’s and women’s wards and a leprosarium. The Templars have no holdings in the barony.”
“There are no castles in the nearby mountains either, as I remember.”
“No, the closest Templar castle is the one at Belfort, and the closest Hospitaller castle is Maldoim on the Dead Sea.”
“The eighty-five knights. Who commands them?”
“The viscount, Madame, Sir Ulric.”
“Is there anything else I should know?”
“I think there is little you don’t already know, Madame,” Tripoli acknowledged with a bow and a slight smile. “And, of course, if you go to Nablus, you will learn more.”
“But I’m welcome to stay here?”
“Of course, Madame,” Tripoli again bowed his head graciously while tensing internally. He had hoped Nablus would attract her, but if not, he would play a different card. “Keep in mind, madame, that your daughter is now second-in-line to the throne and, as such, could be a target for unscrupulous men. In Nablus, surrounded by your men, she would be safer than here at court with so many different men, not all of good character, coming and going.”
“I will think about that, monsieur. Thank you for coming.” She stood and held out her hand with the coronation ring on it.
Tripoli bowed low over her hand. “Allow me to offer my deepest condolences on your loss, madame. We have spoken dispassionately of financial arrangements up to now. I wish you to know that I understand what a great shock this has been for you. I want to assure you that I will always find time for you if you have any concerns or questions, or simply need someone to discuss matters with. You remain, after all, our queen.”
“Thank you, my lord. I appreciate your offer very much. May I, in turn, congratulate you on your appointment to regent?”
He bowed his head again and withdrew.
Maria listened to his footsteps fade and then went to the window. She knelt on the seat and looked down into the street. It was so crammed with pilgrims that a caravan was having trouble making its way up the road. Peddlers were hawking their wares—fresh grapes, fresh-baked spinach pies, sacred earth, and holy water. A group of nuns was singing hymns. A tour guide was pointing at the palace—practically at her window—and all the faces turned simultaneously to look straight at her.
She pulled back inside unnerved and looked around the chamber. It seemed empty with her ladies gone. Serving a dowager was not as prestigious as serving a ruling queen. One after another, her ladies had asked to leave. She did not mind them going; she had never trusted or liked any of them very much anyway. The only companion she cared about was Rahel. When Maria asked if she too wanted to leave, the Egyptian had replied simply, “go where, Madame? After what the Bedouins did to me, I would be stoned or forced into prostitution in my home village. I am here because God sent me.”
Yet, while her chambers were empty of people, they were filled with memories. Memories of Amalric, her marriage, her miscarriage, and the birth of Isabella. The shock of Amalric’s death had created a clash of emotions—regrets, relief, anger, and disbelief. Guilt for not feeling more grief alternated with self-pity. She had worn a crown but felt cheated of having been queen. She had been a wife but felt cheated of love. Gradually, as the days passed, fears and hopes had crystalized, and while some ghosts had been laid to rest, other phantoms took shape. Amalric had denied her any power or role in his kingdom, and with his death, her official duties ended. In place of what had proven an empty title, she would have freedom. She would be master of her own destiny.
Yet something nagged at her evermore incessantly as the shock wore off and the routine of widowhood set in. At first, it was hardly more than apparently random memories of fragments of conversations. Gradually, however, the conversations became more imagined than remembered. Her thoughts increasingly circled around him, until she started to actively picture a future with him. With Sir Balian.
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