The children had been far too excited to sleep, but Maria Zoë could order Nanny Anne and Fathers Michael and Angelus to put them to bed and keep them there. She could hardly do that with Isabella anymore, however, much less Eschiva and Eloise. The other three women sat together in her chamber, as nervous as condemned criminals awaiting an execution.
Eloise was the most difficult. She had broken down very early in the evening and started pleading, “You can’t leave me here! You can’t!” She whined when she pleaded, and Maria Zoë found it very hard to be patient with her. She hated whiners, and part of her was convinced that Eloise invited contempt by her very weakness. “You can’t leave me here,” she whined again; “please take me with you.”
“I don’t know that I’m leaving,” Maria Zoë snapped back—eliciting a simultaneous gasp from Eschiva and Isabella that it would have been comic under other circumstances.
“What do you mean?” Isabella asked.
“You saw the reaction of the crowd! And the summons from the Patriarch. They want and expect my lord husband to stay and organize the defense of Jerusalem,” Maria Zoë told them bluntly.
“But surely Uncle Balian won’t do that!” Eschiva protested, horrified. It had never occurred to her that her uncle might choose to remain in Jerusalem. She had been focused entirely on convincing him that “niece” would surely count as “family,” or that she could pass herself off as Maria Zoë’s waiting woman.
Isabella, on the other hand, had been worrying about exactly that: that her stepfather might decide to stay. She looked sharply at her mother. “What about the children?” she asked, meaning her half-siblings.
“There are thirty thousand children in Jerusalem, Isabella. Maybe more.”
“No,” Maria Zoë paused, reflecting on whether or not she should be honest, and then admitted, “I doubt very much he can save any of them.”
“But the Sultan gave him a safe-conduct!” Eloise wailed. “He can take you and his children—all of us—” she included Isabella and Eschiva—“to safety!”
“What sort of man would walk away from this?” Maria Zoë answered, gesturing vaguely toward the window. The shutters were open, and even at this late hour of the night, indistinct voices wafted up from the street below. “Where could we ever go where we could look people in the eye again, if he walks away?
“Besides,” she added matter-of-factly, “last night we didn’t even dream of him coming. Nothing has changed. We are trapped in this city, and when it falls, we will be at the mercy of our enemies.” Maria Zoë looked at the other three women, one after another. “You need to face that fact and not keep hoping for a miracle—from my lord husband or anyone else.”
“But what about the children?” Eloise wailed again.
“I have to believe that the Sultan will not allow the children—or nephews—of a noble opponent to be mishandled,” Maria Zoë told her firmly. She had to believe that.
“He vowed to kill us all!” Eloise screamed, her terror turning to hysteria in an instant.
Eschiva at once put an arm around her and shushed her. “Hush. Hush. Tante Marie is right. We have to pray—”
“What good is praying? I prayed and prayed—” Eloise broke down into wailing sobs.
Maria Zoë looked at Isabella. “I do not think anyone will dare harm a princess of Jerusalem.”
“Princess of a kingdom that does not exist anymore?” Isabella shot back. “Why should anyone care what I once was?”
“Jerusalem has not yet fallen.” It was Balian’s voice. The women had been too intent on their own conversation to hear him arrive—because, assuming they would be asleep, he had approached as quietly as possible.
Maria Zoë spun about and looked into his face.
“Of course.” She took his hand and followed him immediately and without hesitation.
He led her to the rooftop. It was flat and enclosed by a crenelated adobe wall, which also provided a running plaster bench around the perimeter. From here they had a clear view: to the southeast, the Dome of the Rock and beyond it the Templar headquarters in the Temple of Solomon; to the southwest, the dome of the Holy Sepulcher and the smaller dome over the Chapel of Calvary.
“I can’t go,” Balian told her simply.
“I know.” She paused. “That was what I was trying to explain to the others.”
“Will the children understand?”
“Don’t worry about the children, Balian. I will deal with them.”
He smiled faintly, because she had not answered his question, but he did not pursue it. Instead he looked out across the city. The sky was lightening, casting the skyline in silhouette against a murky, gray dawn, and diminishing the power of the torches that still burned in the street below. “Do you know a scribe that can write a fine, educated Arabic? I must send my apologies to the Sultan for breaking my word.”
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