Ascalon, Kingdom of Jerusalem
Disappointed, Maria Zoë went to one of the chairs between the arches and slowly sank down onto it. From habit she folded her hands in her lap, and the image she presented to the outside world was one of a patient queen, awaiting the refreshments promised. Behind that façade, however, her emotions were teetering on the brink of panic. She had ridden all this way, mystifying those around her, for a confrontation with what? A ghost from her past? A figment of her imagination?
Just who was Balian d’Ibelin?
In this functional room, shorn of all her dreams and wishful thinking, she realized that she did not know him at all. He had never said one word about himself―about his feelings, his plans, his dreams. He had always spoken of Baldwin. Baldwin had been their shared interest. Nothing more.
There was a knock on the door and she caught her breath, turning toward it expectantly. But the tall young knight who entered was not Balian. He looked vaguely familiar, but Maria Zoë could not place him. He came toward her, smiling, and bowed deeply from two feet away before announcing, “My lord was out in the lists, but he will return shortly. Meanwhile, is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable, your grace? Sherbet is being prepared even as we speak, but perhaps you would like something more substantial?”
“At the moment, no, aside from learning your name, sir.”
“Oh, I’m Sir Walter. You’ll remember me as Sir Balian’s squire.”
“Ah, yes, of course.” Now that he said it, she did recognize him, although he had matured significantly; his lean body had filled out and his face looked like it could now grow a beard. “So you’ve been knighted,” she noted politely. Two years was a long time for a youth on the brink of manhood.
Walter grinned at her. “Sir Balian didn’t have any choice. He felt the city was inadequately defended, so he doubled the number of knights in Ascalon by knighting me.”
Maria Zoë looked suitably shocked, and Walter laughed. “And even so, he’d rather tilt with the quintain than with me. I fall off the horse from just thinking about the lance hitting me. Ah! Here’s the sherbet.” Walter went to open the door wider for a servant carrying a silver tray, laden with two glazed pottery bowls packed with sherbet, a bowl of cashews, and spoons. The servant set the tray down on the table beside Maria Zoë and offloaded it. Rahel motioned to Walter to sit with her lady, but he shook his head, adding graciously to the waiting woman, “Refresh yourself, my lady. You’ve had a hot ride, while I’ve been comfortable in the shade. But I will keep you company, if you like?”
The question was directed to the Queen.
“By all means,” the latter assured him as Rahel sat down, and Walter grabbed a stool to sit astride at Maria Zoë’s feet.
Maria Zoë’s head was filled with questions that Walter could undoubtedly answer. For example, was Balian looking for a wife? And if so, where? And if not, why not? But she dared not ask.
“Did you come directly from Jerusalem, your grace?” Walter asked in the vacuum left by her own silence.
“Yes, we did.”
“Then could you be so kind as to tell us the latest news? Is it true Salah-ad-Din has left Damascus?”
“Yes, he has returned to Egypt. Our spies suggest there was a revolt, but Salah-ad-Din is said to have ruthlessly suppressed it with terrible bloodshed.” Maria Zoë had been with the King when this word was brought to him by a Syrian Christian who traded in ivory between Cairo and Damascus. “Our source says that he sealed off the quarter of the city in which the rebels lived and sent his men in to slaughter the women and children house by house until none survived.” Maria Zoë shook her head in aversion at the story, adding,
“And now he is preaching jihad and threatening us with the same fate. It is said Salah-ad-Din has vowed to drive the Kingdom of Jerusalem into the sea.”
“Then this is an odd time to visit Ascalon,” Balian remarked softly, coming in the open door.
Maria Zoë started at the sound of his voice and looked up with racing pulse. He was exactly as she remembered him―no, he was much more handsome. Two years ago he had been a knight in her husband’s service: young, strong, tanned, and earnest, as befitted the only knight who dared serve a leper. Now he commanded a city, and his new position gave him stature. But the eyes were still the same molten bronze. No, they weren’t. They were much bolder. He looked her straight in the eye as he approached, and it took her breath away.
Balian’s skin was flushed from the steam bath and glowed with oils, and he smelled of balsam. His hair was still wet and looked almost black, but the drying strands looked as soft and silky as Maria Zoë’s own when her hair was freshly cleaned, only straight rather than curly. Balian’s chin was slightly darkened with the promise of a beard to come, as he had not taken the time to shave. Maria Zoë heard her heart thundering in her ears―and registered that this must be what the troubadours meant when they sang of a knight making his lady’s blood burn.
Balian had crossed the room, and he bowed deeply over her hand. “Welcome to Ascalon, your grace. I regret that without warning, we could not provide you with a more suitable welcome. I hope Sir Walter has been behaving himself and has made you feel at home?”
“Sir Walter is a paragon of chivalry, my lord,” Maria Zoë answered smoothly, too conscious of the turmoil of her emotions to realize how cool and aloof she sounded.
Walter had jumped to his feet when Balian arrived, and Rahel had stood, too. She again gestured to the seat she had occupied.
Balian shook his head to Rahel, gesturing for her to resume her seat. He looked over his shoulder and found a smaller chair, which he grabbed and placed before the table. “To what do we owe the honor of your presence in Ascalon, your grace?”
Balian could not have been more formal, and Walter wanted to kick him. That’s no way to court a lady, he wanted to shout at his lord, not any lady―much less one of the most beautiful creatures on God’s earth, with a queen’s dower portion on top!
Walter was right, of course. Maria Zoë felt as if she had been burned by ice. Balian had always been meticulously polite to her, of course, but before, it had been a façade. Hadn’t it? He had been polite to disguise how much he really felt for her, hadn’t he? She had been so sure of it at the time. She had believed in his affection for the two years she had been with the Carmelites. It was the conviction that he would be pleased to see her that had brought her here―two days’ ride from Jerusalem to the most vulnerable city in the Kingdom.