Friday, October 10, 2014

A Political Marriage - Excerpt 4

Jerusalem, September 1172






When the King still had not come to her more than a fortnight after her recovery, Maria Zoë took things into her own hands. She knew that Amalric, a conscientious monarch, met with his Privy Council every day at noon in the Tower of David. She ordered her ladies to dress her in her wedding gown with its extravagance of jewels, and she set the crown of Jerusalem upon sheer silk veils that shimmered gold and white over her dark hair. Then she sent for the herald. “Announce me to the King,” she ordered the astonished herald.

“But, your grace—” He broke off as she rose to her feet and met him in the eye.

“I am going to the Tower of David to see my husband. Go and announce me.”

The herald backed out of her chamber, bowing, and Maria Zoë could hear his boots as he ran along the gallery leading from the modern palace back to the ancient citadel. Maria Zoë moved slowly to give the herald time to warn her husband, but not so slowly that Amalric could escape her altogether. By the time she reached the exterior stairs leading up to the great audience chamber in the ancient tower, the Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Constable, Humphrey de Toron, were exiting the grand chamber in apparent haste. Both men bowed their heads to their Queen, and Maria Zoë could feel their eyes boring into her back.

As she entered the grand chamber with the throne and a table for the council, two clerks were falling over themselves in their haste to put away their quills and inkpots and clear out. They, too, bowed deeply to Maria Zoë and beat a hasty retreat.

Amalric awaited her seated, his face impassive, his eyes following her alertly. Maria Zoë approached the throne and went down in a formal curtsy. “My lord,” she murmured as she righted herself. “Since you have avoided my presence these last two weeks, I thought it was time I sought you out.”

“Hmm,” Amalric remarked. “You are recovered, then?”

“I am recovered. And you, my lord, you are well?”

“As well as a man can be—after being presented with a second daughter at a time when the Kingdom desperately needs a male heir. People may not say it out loud, but Baldwin has leprosy. Very likely it disqualifies him from the throne altogether. A nobleman with leprosy must enter the Order of St. Lazarus. Can the law exempt a prince?”

“My lord, I am as disappointed as you are that my child is a girl,” Maria Zoë answered steadily. “But I cannot decide the sex of my child.”

“No, so I’m told,” Amalric admitted grudgingly.

“The only solution is for us to try again.” Maria Zoë had practiced this line in her head a hundred times and she tried to sound bold, but her voice quavered a little nevertheless.

“Oh, really?” Amalric asked sarcastically, making Maria Zoë blush. “Somehow, I never had the impression you were very enthusiastic about sexual intimacy—at least not with me.”

Maria Zoë gasped. “You cannot think I have been unfaithful to you!”

Amalric considered his bride and smiled cynically. He had always preferred married women to girls, precisely because virgins were rarely enthusiastic partners in bed. Maria Zoë’s beauty had seduced him at first, but her unresponsiveness—often with a twisted face and gasps of pain—had soon dulled his appetite. She seemed to dislike physical intimacy so intensely that he truly found it hard to imagine her risking her crown, her head, and her soul for the sake of carnal pleasures—unlike Agnes de Courtney, who was always eager for variety in fornication. Nevertheless, he reasoned that it didn’t hurt to let his wife think he doubted her, so that she would be frightened as well as disinclined. In answer to her reply, he merely weighed his head from side to side and remarked, “You’re a beautiful young woman—and as such, weak and easily seduced.”

“Never!” she declared indignantly, her cheeks flushed. “And how should another man have a chance if you are there?”

“Where? You mean in your bed? Ah, well, believe me, it’s quite possible to make love in other venues—but that is a topic best saved for another time, and not exactly the reason you are here, is it?”

“My lord, as you said, the Kingdom of Jerusalem needs a male heir, and only you can sire him.”

“Indeed, but not necessarily with you.”

So the rumors were true, Maria Zoë registered, and he was considering setting her aside.

“I am your wife—”

“Perhaps not. If my marriage to Agnes was valid, then my marriage to you is bigamous, and you are nothing more than my concubine.” He let this sink in, enjoying the look of horror on Maria Zoë’s face. Like all Greeks, she considered herself fundamentally superior to other races, and Amalric took a certain pleasure in pointing out the weakness of her position. “I’m sure I could find a priest—even a bishop—who would argue the case. Should I so desire …” Amalric threatened with a mild, unfriendly smile.

“I’m sure you could, too, my lord,” Maria Zoë answered steadily, having recovered from the insult of being called a concubine. She wasn’t, after all, entirely unprepared for his line of attack. She was no fool, and she had given much thought to where this conversation might lead. Since he had played this trump, however, she drew hers. “And I’m just as certain that my great-uncle would see such a move as an insult incompatible with his status as your overlord.”

“The Greek Emperor is not my overlord,” Amalric retorted sharply.

“No? I thought that was the purpose of your trip to Constantinople last year—to renew your lapsed oaths of homage,” Maria Zoë pointed out coolly. Although Amalric had not seen fit to include her in his meetings with her great-uncle, her father had been present, and he had assured her that Amalric had dutifully acknowledged that he held Jerusalem as a vassal of Constantinople.

“The Greek Emperor generously offered me his protection, and I assured him of my goodwill—no more than that,” Amalric insisted, frowning sidelong at his beautiful doll-wife, who had never dared talk to him like this before.

Maria Zoë recognized that she could not argue this point, and changed her tactic. “Whether my great-uncle is your overlord or not, neither he nor my brother-in-law of Antioch will allow me to be set aside without consequences for Jerusalem.”

Amalric snorted in exasperation—because she was right. The Emperor in Constantinople had made it very clear that he considered himself the center of the universe and would take any slight to his prestige as lèse majesté, while Antioch had tied himself to Constantinople because he needed Greek support to keep the Seljuks at bay. This dependency was reflected in his marriage politics: Prince Bohemond’s sister Mary was the Emperor’s current wife, while Bohemond himself was married to Maria Zoë’s sister. In short, Amalric’s two most powerful allies would both side with his wife in any public dispute, and Jerusalem could not afford to fall out with both Constantinople and Antioch.

Amalric considered his wife again through narrowed eyes, registering that she was not as fragile, weak, or docile as he had taken her to be. She was clearly growing up. He grunted a second time. He was stuck with this wife for political reasons—and truth to tell, it was not such a difficult duty to get her pregnant again. “I’ll tell you what,” Amalric suggested, leaning closer to Maria Zoë and lowering his voice. “You make me feel welcome in your bed, and I’ll think about spending as much time there as we need to make a son together.”

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