“They have turned down my ransom demands again.”
“Oh, Balian, I’m sorry. Why?”
“Rashid’s father says he is too poor to pay.”
“What are you asking?”
“Ten thousand bezants.”
Maria Zoë gasped. “For all of them?”
“No, apiece,” Balian answered, surprised.
“Thirty thousand gold pieces?” Maria Zoë was unable to believe her ears. “That’s a fortune.”
“No more than the rebuilding of Ibelin will cost me!” Balian snapped back.
Maria Zoë was stunned into silence. She registered that he might be accepting her revenues because the rebuilding of Ibelin was so important to him, but inwardly he still wanted to pay his own way. After a moment she remarked cautiously, “I understand, Balian, but if you can’t raise thirty thousand bezants, then take a little less. There will be other opportunities, surely.”
“Damn them!” Balian answered, jumping to his feet and pacing to the window. “Damn them all! The only one of the whole lot whose father gives a damn about his son is the one who probably is too poor to pay—too poor, it seems, to have more than one wife and one son. The other two are too rich! They have four wives and countless concubines and litters of children, so that one son more or less means almost nothing to them! They accept the loss—Allah Inshallah!—and prefer their gold to their sons’ lives!”
Maria Zoë held her tongue in the face of Balian’s obvious fury, but she found it hard to believe that he was right—for surely, regardless of religion and race, men loved their sons? Yet there was some logic to what he said, too; it was the nature of men to place greater value on things in short supply and lesser value on things available in abundance.
“I wrote to Ishmael’s father that I would be ashamed and dishonored to offer only one thousand pieces of gold for a son, and do you know what he wrote back?”
Maria Zoë dutifully shook her head, a little afraid of the answer. “That he would be ashamed and dishonored to have only one wife.”
Maria Zoë caught her breath at his reply, and she felt herself getting angry too. “Is that why you attacked him in the courtyard?”
Balian froze, and it was several moments before he answered. “No. No, but the words were in my mind and no doubt added to my rage,” he admitted.
“Why did you attack him?” Maria Zoë persisted in a low voice; she felt she needed to better understand this man she had married.
Balian still hesitated, because he did not know Maria Zoë well enough yet to be sure how she would react, but at length he admitted: “He called you a whore.” Maria Zoë caught her breath and remembered Beth’s face: the girl had understood. Before she could even sort out her emotions, Balian continued. “He did it to insult me—despite the courtesy and generosity I have shown all of them. When he caught sight of you, he said, ‘Look at that! These Franks are so lacking in honor, they let their wives show themselves to strange men like common whores.’”
The words sparked indignation in Maria Zoë, and she found herself asking, “And what did you answer him?”
“Oh, I don’t know exactly.” Balian shrugged in embarrassment. “In my fury, my Arabic went to hell, and I probably only managed a lot of gibberish.”
Maria Zoë did not believe him entirely, but it was true that being angry in a foreign language was almost as difficult as cracking jokes in one. It had taken her years before she could be either angry or humorous in French. “What did you try to say?”
“Something about Franks having so much honor that we need not lock away our wives to protect them—since only dishonorable men would leer at another man’s wife. To which Ishmael said that if a woman was so wanton as to show herself in public unveiled, a man would have to be a eunuch not to leer. That was when I sliced open his face, and told him the scar would remind him that Franks punished men who were so boorish as to leer at their wives. I told him he’d gotten away lightly only because he was an unarmed prisoner; otherwise he would already be dead.”
Maria Zoë took a deep breath, and then a sip of wine to steady herself. “I’m sorry to be the cause of this incident,” she declared, putting her wineglass back on the table. “I shouldn’t have shown myself to them.”
“Why not?” Balian asked back sharply. “This is my palace, in my city, in your Kingdom! You have the right to go anywhere you please! It’s my prisoners who have forgotten themselves! I have been too lenient with them, but that has changed.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish