“Now, sweetheart,” Maria Zoë began as she helped Isabella put her arms into the sleeves. “You have to understand that the King—”
“My brother!” Isabella remembered.
“Yes, your brother the King is very, very sick. He doesn’t look sick when he’s dressed up as he will be, but underneath his beautiful silk gloves his hands are dead.”
“Dead?” Isabella looked shocked.
“Yes. Dead and slowly rotting away. He cannot use his fingers—cannot move or feel them anymore. And that means he cannot reach out and take your hands in his or otherwise stroke and pat you like adults usually do. Nor should you be impertinent and reach out to him,” Maria Zoë warned.
Isabella’s expression suggested she was not at all tempted to try to touch something “dead.” Maria Zoë reached out and stroked her daughter’s shoulder. “You mustn’t be afraid, either. Your brother Baldwin is a very good man, and he is your guardian.”
This did not appear to mollify Isabella, and she abruptly buried her face in her mother’s skirts and asked, “Do we have to go? Do we have to go see a man with dead hands?”
“Yes, we do,” her mother told her firmly. “Straighten up and behave yourself.” Her tone of voice was one that broached no contradiction or disobedience. Isabella sighed deeply, stood upright, and took her mother’s hand.
Outside the King’s apartments, when the men-at-arms announced them, Maria Zoë sank down to Isabella’s height, kissed her on the cheek, and murmured in her ear, “Smile, sweetheart.”
Isabella turned big brown eyes on her that said silently, “You can command me to behave, but not to smile,” and solemnly the little girl walked beside her mother into the royal solar. Her big eyes searched the beautiful room with its glittering mosaic floor, glazed tile facings, and carved and painted furnishings, and stopped when she found a handsome youth with bright blond hair smiling at her. “So you’re Isabella!” he said warmly.
Isabella went stock still. “Are you the King?” she asked.
“No, I’m your brother.”
Isabella looked up at her mother reproachfully for not telling her she had two brothers.
“Isabella, look what I have here,” the youth coaxed her.
Isabella looked back at the beautiful youth. He had raised his arm and gestured with it, the hand limp at the end, toward his lap. Isabella noticed that he had something furry in it—and then it moved, and Isabella gasped with excitement. “Kittens!”
Before her mother could stop her, she rushed forward, halting just short of Baldwin, to look up and ask, “Oh, please, may I pet them?”
“You can do more than that,” Baldwin assured her. “You can choose which one you want to keep.”
“Oh, Mama! May I? May I have a kitten?” Isabella pleaded, looking anxiously over her shoulder to her mother.
Maria Zoë looked at Baldwin, and he smiled at her. “I have discovered bribery is a most effective means of winning friends—and I so want Isabella and me to be friends,” he pleaded with her.
How could she fault him for that? “Yes, darling,” she answered Isabella, “you may have a kitten.”
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