A page rushed ahead of the Dowager Queen to announce her, but she was too close on his heels for the Queen Mother or Princess Sibylla to do anything more than look up in astonishment. After all, she had lived in this palace seven years and she knew exactly where she was going, even if she had avoided it since the disastrous Easter court two years ago when Sibylla had married Guy de Lusignan. Certainly she had not set eyes on Agnes de Courtenay since the Queen Mother had connived to steal Isabella away from her.
Maria Zoë had no doubt whatever who had instigated the theft of her child. She knew that the King was not really the originator of the idea, and she was convinced that neither the King nor even Balian, good man that he was, fully understood what was at stake. They both saw in Isabella a potential contender for the throne of Jerusalem who needed to be “controlled” — but Maria Zoë recognized that to Agnes de Courtenay, Isabella was a threat to her children. While Maria Zoë was certain that Baldwin meant his half-sister no harm, she remained convinced that Agnes was plotting Isabella’s death behind her son’s back.
Maria Zoë had made no less than five trips to Kerak in the last two years, but on the last two occasions she had been told that Isabella was “away”—allegedly on pilgrimage in one case and at Montreal on the other. Maria Zoë believed none of it. If it hadn’t been for Dawit’s regular reports on Isabella’s physical health and fierce determination to survive her imprisonment, she would have been frantic enough to take desperate measures. What measures, she didn’t know, but she knew she was capable of doing things no one expected of her.
One of them was walking straight up to the King’s mother and sister and holding out her hand for them to kiss her coronation ring. It was a gesture so haughty that all the ladies in the garden gasped. Maria Zoë knew at some level that such gestures did not make her popular, but she was in no mood to seek the approval of others. This was the ring of Jerusalem that had been placed on her finger at her coronation. She was an anointed queen—something neither Agnes de Courtenay nor Sibylla could claim. Agnes was a baroness, Sibylla Countess of Jaffa; Maria Zoë outranked them both.
Flushing with fury, Agnes just stared at her, while Sibylla threatened, “I will tell my brother about this.”
“Please do!” the Dowager Queen answered, turning to look at her coldly. “King Baldwin understands the significance of being an anointed monarch. He will not be pleased by your insult to his Crown.”
Agnes choked on something she wanted to say, and Sibylla leapt up and ran away from this woman, who always made her feel so inadequate, worthless, and small.
That suited Maria Zoë. She was now face to face with her hated rival. “So, madame, whose child are you planning to steal today?” Maria Zoë asked. Agnes turned even redder, but still could not seem to find her tongue. “If it is my niece’s unborn child,” Maria Zoë continued with only the barest glance in Eschiva’s direction, “think again. Aimery de Lusignan is not as susceptible to your poisonous whispers as your poor, pious son. Oh, but then you must know that—since you knew Aimery so very well.”
“How dare you?” Agnes de Courtenay had found her tongue at last and jumped to her feet in outrage, her fists clenched.
“How dare I what, madame? Draw attention to your morals? But they are common knowledge.” Maria Zoë made a gesture of innocence that included all the other ladies, who gawked at them in shock. Then she added in a voice as hard as steel, for all that it was barely more than a whisper: “Everyone knows you have as much virtue as a bitch in heat.”
Agnes tried to slap Maria Zoë across her face, but Maria Zoë was faster. She caught the Queen Mother’s arm before she could strike and held it, her fingers digging into her Agnes’ wrist until she whimpered in pain. “Let me go!”
Maria Zoë dropped Agnes’ arm, and they stared at one another. “Don’t think you have won,” Maria Zoë warned. “Isabella may be a child, but she has friends far more powerful than you and your vultures.”
“You can’t mean my ineffectual brother-in-law,” Agnes sneered.
“No, of course not,” Maria Zoë answered, refusing to be provoked. “We both know my husband is too honorable for the games you play.” Maria Zoë was bluffing about having powerful friends. Her great-uncle was dead, her relatives murdered or chased into exile, but she could see the fear that suddenly shot through Agnes’ eyes, and that was satisfying enough for the moment.
The fear, however, made Agnes bluster, “You are not welcome here. I order you to leave at once.”
“I’ll leave when I want to,” Maria Zoë countered. “And don’t think your son’s guards will lay a hand on me! They know the difference between an anointed queen and a king’s whore—”
“Get out of here!” It was Sibylla who shrieked this, coming back to defend her mother at last.
“With pleasure,” Maria Zoë answered. “I do not like the company of sluts—or fools.” The latter remark was directed at Sibylla.
“Baldwin will hear of this!” Sibylla shrieked, louder than ever.
“I wonder whose side he’ll take?” Maria Zoë answered evenly. It was not so much that she seriously believed Baldwin would approve of her calling his mother a whore—much less a bitch in heat—but she was, in fact, so furious with him for letting his mother steal her child that she wanted to hurt him. And perhaps, just perhaps, if he learned what she had done, he would be shocked into understanding just how deeply she had been hurt and how dangerous a mother animal in fear for her young was. Maybe, just maybe, he’d begin to see that his mother was not his best adviser, and that engendering the hatred of those who had loved and served him best was stupid—and could be very dangerous as well.