Rahel helped Maria Zoë undress, brushed out and braided her long hair, and then folded back the covers and helped her climb, awkwardly, into the high bed. Only after she had withdrawn did Balian leave the antechamber where Dawit and the new squire Ernoul had helped him out of his clothes and into a woollen nightshirt. A fire had been lit to warm the room before they arrived, but it was now slowly dying. Balian climbed into the far side of the bed and snuggled up beside his wife, laying a hand on her distended belly. “Is he active tonight?”
“No, he’s very still,” Maria Zoë answered, putting her own hand over her husband’s. “Balian?”
“I’m worried about Isabella. I know Stephanie de Milly said it was only a small fever and nothing to worry about, but I do worry.”
Balian could understand that, but he didn’t see what they could do about it. “You can’t travel to Kerak,” he told his wife firmly. “I won’t have you risk our unborn child.”
“I didn’t intend to!” Maria Zoë snapped, resenting the fact that he seemed to think he had to tell her what was good for their child. “And before you tell me off, I know you can’t leave Ibelin in the middle of the Christmas season, either. What I was thinking,” Maria Zoë added before they quarreled, “was that now that you have a new squire, we could send Dawit with the pony we were going to give her.”
“Are you so sure the Lady of Oultrejourdain will let a groom into her daughter-in-law’s sickroom?”
“No, of course not. But he could stay until she is well enough to come down to the stables—and meanwhile, learn a great deal just from listening to the talk of the servants. Dawit’s so unassuming, people hardly notice him. He’s bound to hear a lot that was never intended for him, and he listens very well.”
Balian smiled to himself. He was frequently surprised by his wife’s deviousness. He supposed it came more naturally to women, who often could only obtain what they wanted by indirect means. Or maybe it came from growing up in a court infamous for intrigue. “Is it that you fear Isabella is sicker than Madame d’Oultrejourdain claims, or that you suspect she’s not sick at all?” Balian asked cautiously.
Maria Zoë had reacted to the news that she must send her daughter to Kerak with such intense fury that it had sparked the worst fight of their married life. She had instantly seen that the Queen Mother was behind the move and that her intentions were remorselessly evil—but once the initial shock wore off, Maria Zoë had also recognized that her husband was not powerful enough to confront the Queen Mother head on. Tripoli was their only hope, and Tripoli was too far away—if not outright indifferent to Isabella’s fate. Tripoli appeared to have completely reconciled himself to the rule of not only Baldwin, but Sibylla and Guy de Lusignan. Or maybe he was just preoccupied with trying to deal with the aftermath of the drought, a new marriage, and other personal affairs. Anyway you looked at it, Maria Zoë reckoned the Queen Mother had the upper hand.
“I think Stephanie de Milly is doing the Queen Mother’s bidding, and she doesn’t want Isabella to ever come visit us. At best, she wants Madame d’Oultrejourdain to turn Isabella against both of us,” Maria Zoë confided to her husband.
“And do you think she might succeed?” Balian asked, astonished. He found it hard to imagine that Isabella would ever turn on her mother.
“Children are so very vulnerable!” Maria Zoë warned him. “They are malleable and easily deceived. They can be made to hate almost anyone! And I haven’t even said what the worst is: I think the Queen Mother wants Isabella dead!”
Abruptly, Balian realized she was crying. He pulled her closer and kissed the side of her face that was wet with tears to try to calm her. He had only physical comfort to offer, because he too feared the Queen Mother wanted Isabella dead. She could not risk having any easy alternative to her own children ready at hand—not after she’d let Sibylla marry a man like Lusignan.
After a bit, Maria Zoë seemed to have cried herself into a calmer state, and Balian promised, “We’ll send Dawit now, and we’ll make a surprise visit to Kerak ourselves at the first opportunity.”
Maria Zoë hiccupped and patted his hand. “Thank you, Balian. I know I’m not the easiest wife to live with.”
“No,” he admitted, “but I would not trade you for anyone.” It was what she wanted to hear, of course, but it was also true. The longer they were married, the more Balian was coming to value his wife’s political acumen, her common sense, and her willpower. She was far more than a pretty bedmate, a source of wealth, the mother of his children, and a companion: she was his most important ally.
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