“Balian, will you marry me?”
His eyes widened with surprise, reassuring Maria Zoë that he had not done this for material gain, even before he asked, “Are you out of your mind?”
“What is mad about wanting to repeat this?” Maria Zoë wanted to know.
“Nothing. But this,” he dropped his head to kiss her gently, “is about love.” He kissed her again before drawing back to declare dryly, “Marriage is about politics.”
“I know,” she retorted with a frown of irritation. “Nothing could have been more political than my first marriage! It took over two years to get the terms right, and I was an exchangeable commodity throughout most of it. I think my great-uncle considered five different female relatives at one time or another, before he finally decided on me. But at thirteen I was my great-uncle’s pawn, and now I am a queen.”
“And I am the younger son of an adventurer and parvenu. Just what do you think your great-uncle would say if I asked for you to wife?” The question was rhetorical.
“If you asked, he’d definitely say ‘No’ and throw you out of his court—assuming he didn’t order your tongue torn out for such impudence.” She giggled to indicate this was just a joke.
“What a pleasant prospect!” Balian noted sarcastically, turning over to lie on his back to protest her teasing about such things.
“If,” Maria Zoë continued, rising up on one elbow and leaning over to look down on him, her long, thick hair cascading down like a black curtain around them. “If, on the other hand, I asked him, his answer would more likely be, “Why?”
“I somehow doubt,” Balian reflected, brushing a strand of hair away from her face with the back of his hand to see her more perfectly, “that my love for you would bear much weight with the Emperor of the Eastern Empire.”
“Not at all,” Maria Zoë agreed readily and matter-of-factly. “But there are other reasons.”
“Such as?” Balian asked cautiously and curiously.
Maria Zoë smiled and dropped down to rest her head on his naked shoulder, nestling closer to him as she did so. “Baldwin cannot have heirs of his body.”
Balian did not answer. It was hardly news to him, and she knew it.
“Princess Sibylla is due to marry at St. Martins and may have a litter of healthy little boys with her Italian marquis—or she may not. Life is so uncertain. Meanwhile, my daughter Isabella is second in line to the throne.”
“She has been for the last four years. What does that have to do with making me a suitable consort for the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem?” Balian’s tone was so earnest that Maria Zoë concluded he was seriously considering her proposal.
“Isabella needs a strong protector. As long as Tripoli was Regent, she had one, because he favored her claim to the throne. And Baldwin dotes on her—maybe even more than he doted on Sibylla. But Baldwin—” She hesitated to say it out loud because she knew how much Balian loved the King, but it had to be said—“Baldwin is very much under the influence of his mother and uncle at the moment. . . . And I’m not so sure they have Isabella’s best interests at heart.”
Balian still did not answer. Again, she was not telling him something new—but until tonight Isabella had been only a name, a fact, the King’s second daughter and the second in line to the throne. For the first time he started to see her as something more than that, as the precious child of the woman he loved.
Maria Zoë continued softly, “If—as—Baldwin becomes weaker,” Maria Zoë continued softly, “I’m afraid Isabella will need—I will need—a man who is strong enough and courageous enough to defy Agnes and Edessa, for they will certainly try to control her—or even eliminate her.”
Balian took his time answering, for he could sense that her fears were very real, and in all honesty he could not dismiss them as unfounded. Agnes de Courtney was not the woman he would like to trust his child’s fate to! But he also had to be honest about his own power. “Any baron of the Kingdom—not to mention an Armenian or Greek prince—would be more suitable for the role of protecting Isabella than I, Zoë,” Balian answered solemnly. “I owe everything to Baldwin, and when he dies I stand to lose my post here—and my ability to protect you and Isabella.”
“Not if you are married to a Byzantine princess and have the ear of the Emperor of the Eastern Empire,” Maria Zoë insisted.
Balian couldn’t picture it the way she did. He saw only that he would be brushed aside as a man of no consequence. If he challenged the Queen Mother and Edessa, who would support him? Montferrat, as the future husband of Sibylla, would automatically side with Agnes de Courtney, and he enjoyed the support of the Holy Roman Emperor. Tripoli, to be sure, favored Isabella’s claim to the throne, but his power had been neatly checkmated by Oultrejourdain, who hated Tripoli and so had thrown in his lot with the Courtneys. His brother would support him, of course—Barry had long urged him to “seduce a heiress”—and even Lusignan might line up behind him, but was that enough? Somehow he couldn’t shake the conviction that with Montferrat, Agnes de Courtney, and Oultrejourdain against him, he was far more likely to end up dead or chained in a dungeon for the rest of his life. He shook his head firmly at the thought.
“Then just what was this all about?” Maria Zoë reared up and demanded with big, reproachful eyes. “A night’s entertainment? Am I just a conquest? A trophy? Something to brag about to other men?” She was naked. All her layers of protection were stripped away—not just the physical ones, but the emotional ones as well. With each question her anger grew, until her eyes were dark with fury.
Balian knew he had been right to imagine she had a passionate inner core and knew, too, that he was playing with fire now that he had laid it bare. He reached up to pull her back down onto his chest, but she resisted him. He could see her anger fueling itself. Like embers caught in a sudden breeze, the fury glinted sharply in her eyes.
“Do you feel conquered?” he asked her, stroking her naked shoulder. “Defeated?”
She met his eyes and the fire died down, but it was not extinguished. Instead, her eyes burned with something more intangible. “No,” she admitted honestly, remembering both how humiliating the consummation of her marriage had been and how utterly different and exhilarating it had been to make love to Balian. But that led her back to her dilemma. “But if you will not marry me, what is our future, Balian? Am I just to ride away tomorrow or the day after?”
“I hope not!” Balian answered and pulled her into his arms again. This time she did not resist. He stroked the back of her head and then nuzzled the hair over her ear until he could reach it with his tongue. “I would that this could go on forever,” he whispered into her ear.
She turned her head to look at him. “You mean like Aimery and Agnes de Courtney?”
Her tone was stinging, and Balian knew he was on the brink of a precipice. Last night he might have been in control of the situation, but this morning he was not. He had to tread very, very carefully if he did not want to destroy what had been born between them. “How could it be like that when you are so utterly unlike Agnes de Courtney?” he murmured, meeting her eyes.
Maria Zoë considered him solemnly. “That was neatly parried, sir,” she admitted, but she did not sound in the least appeased.
“Five years in the service of a king teaches even a country bumpkin some things,” he countered.
“But I’m serious, Balian,” she pleaded, and Balian noticed a sheen of tears over her eyes, which ignited a wave of protectiveness in him.
He covered her eyes with kisses. “Don’t cry, Zoë. There’s nothing to cry about.”
“Yes, there is,” she protested, surrendering to her tears, because his sympathy had melted the very last of her defenses. “I love you, Balian. I love you as I think no woman ever loved anyone before. I love you because I’ve never been allowed to love anyone, and you’re the first man who ever treated me like I was not just a jewel, a prize, a tool, and a trophy—” she dissolved into heartrending sobs that left Balian utterly helpless.
Part of his mind was laughing at him, noting: “You got more than you bargained for.” And another part was preaching to him, saying, “See how you’ve abused the trust of an innocent child!” But mostly, he just felt desperately protective and wanted to make Zoë happy again. “Zoë, don’t cry,” he pleaded. “Look! A new day is dawning, and there is no reason why it cannot be as beautiful as yesterday.” He parted the striped linen bed curtains, letting the rose-colored sunshine pour in through the eastern window.
“You’re telling me to live one day at a time,” Maria Zoë answered in a strained voice as she pulled herself together.
“Yes,” Balian answered slowly, reflecting on what he had said. “Yes. Today we are both richer for what we have—for knowing how we feel about one another. Let us make the most of that. God alone knows the future, and God knows that things can change in the most unexpected ways. Who would have thought, four years ago when we first met in the royal mews, that we would ever lie together like this?”
She looked up at him with molten eyes, but said softly, “You are right, Balian. We must be thankful for what He has given us.” Then she closed her eyes and offered him her lips instead.
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