BELLA’S 20TH BIRTHDAY HAD GONE UNNOTICED in her father’s frantic preparations to defend himself before the High Court. Not that she minded particularly. Celebrating a birthday or name day was a vanity unbecoming of a nun, but inwardly the date was significant. She had promised her father she would not take holy vows before her twentieth birthday, and she had kept her word. Now, however, it was time to commit herself.
Only that wasn’t proving as easy as she had expected. In the last three years she had developed a range of charitable activities from her daily alms giving to her work with the orphanage of Saint Martha. So many of her activities were made possible by being the daughter of the Lord of Beirut. Her generosity, from the bread baked in the citadel’s kitchen to shoes for the orphans, derived from her father’s income. If she took vows of poverty, she reflected, she would become much less capable of doing good for the poor.
It didn’t help that she had just spent three months with the Sisters of the Hospital in their large establishment down in Beirut town. Bella recognized that in most nunneries the sisters spent their days in prayer, or at most copying and illuminating. Such activities had too little direct impact on the lives of others to appeal to Bella. Other convents saw their primary function in providing an education to girls, and while Bella knew that it was important work, she felt she could do so much more. The Hospital with its robust integration in society and vitally important work of helping the sick, aging, and disabled had long beckoned.
Yet three months at the Hospital had convinced Bella that she was not naturally inclined to care for the sick. Too often, she had found herself squeamish, even nauseous, when tending to people with open wounds or skin ulcers. The smells had made her stomach heave, and she did not have a steady hand when trying to clean out infected matter. Anything that required inflicting temporary pain for long-term benefit, such as cutting away ingrown nails, had caused her so much distress that the sisters had excused her entirely. At the end of the three months, she and the Hospitaller sisters agreed that the Hospital was not her calling.
But what was her calling? Bella was undergoing her first crisis of self-doubt precisely at the moment when she was free to shape her own future. That bewildered her and made her feel a little neglected by God.
It did not help that this past week her cousin of Sidon, in his capacity as Imperial Baillie, had issued a writ declaring the Lordship of Beirut crown property. Her father “and his heirs and servants” were ordered to “vacate” it forthwith. Her father had responded by demanding a trial before the High Court to which Sidon had reluctantly agreed.
Ever since, messengers had been fanning out from Beirut across the kingdom with letters requesting support at the coming session of the High Court. This morning, Bella’s cousin Walter de Caesarea had arrived with a large party of rear vassals, all of whom also sat in judgment. They planned to ride south with Beirut’s own party. They would be setting out tomorrow at first light.
Because the citadel was overflowing with men, horses, anger, and male bravado, Bella had sought refuge in the northeast tower. This was the tower at the junction of the northern and eastern walls of the citadel. The exterior base of the tower was surrounded by the sea, and the inside wall bordered the garden. The chaplain, Father Marcus, had a pleasant apartment on the first floor above the ground (which was used for storage), and the Lord of Beirut had located his library on the top floor of this tower. He had chosen this tower because it was so removed from the hustle and bustle of daily life, it offered genuine peace for reading and study.
Today, however, Bella did not want the distraction of books. She needed to think. So, she climbed to the ramparts where she could look out to sea and feel both the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the breeze. This had always been one of her favorite places in the citadel. A place where her brothers rarely came.
Although she resisted the temptation to be angry with God for this assault on her father, she could not suppress a sense of frustration. Her father was a good man. He was devout and noble. He had built Beirut from ruins. He had turned a wasteland into a flourishing province and filled the harbor with ships. He had given the broken churches their voices and given their congregations the sacraments. He had always tried to be a good lord to his people, a just judge in disputes, and merciful even when passing sentence. He had been forgiving, even of his enemies like Barlais, whose betrayal had wounded him deeply. Nor had he ever complained about the money she spent on charity or chided her for making promises of even greater gifts in his name. Why, then, would God take his beloved barony away from him?
Was it a test, perhaps? Like Job was tested? She resisted the idea. She couldn’t bear to picture her father as a leper begging in the streets—not to mention the thought that she and all her brothers would be doomed to an early death.
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