“Madame,” the Patriarch started, clearing his throat a little nervously before plunging ahead, with a smile that seemed (at least in Maria Zoë’s jaded eyes) all too practiced. He must have used this smile effectively on many women, she found herself thinking cynically. “We have seen far too little of you.”
“We?” she asked back with raised eyebrows. “Just who do you mean by ‘we,’ monsieur?”
“Well, myself, for one—and, ah, Jerusalem.”
“Jerusalem,” Maria Zoë echoed with an indecipherable expression. Until she had sought refuge here three weeks ago, Maria Zoë had not set foot in Jerusalem since the usurpation of Sibylla and Guy.
“Yes, Jerusalem,” the Patriarch repeated. “I am told that we now have as many refugees in the city as residents—forty thousand men, women, and children—and still they come, daily and from every part of the Kingdom. Soon we will have nowhere left to put them and insufficient food to feed them.”
Maria Zoë raised her eyebrows. “Then I suggest you discuss the situation with the Queen.”
Heraclius cleared his throat and squirmed uncomfortably in his chair, while Eschiva and Isabella exchanged an amused glance. There was still no love lost between Maria Zoë and Sibylla.
“The Queen, my lady—the Queen is in considerable distress.”
“Is she ill?” Maria Zoë almost sounded hopeful.
“In a manner of speaking, yes. She is in great distress over—over what has happened, and particularly the uncertainty of her husband’s fate.”
“Her husband is alive and well. She has nothing to worry about—unlike my daughter Isabella. We are not even sure Humphrey de Toron is still among the living.”
“Ah, on that point at least I can offer you reassurance.” The Patriarch looked distinctly relieved to have some good news to share. “I have had word from Stephanie de Milly that the Sultan has opened negotiations with her for the release of her son.”
Isabella choked down an exclamation and half reared out of her seat. Her mother and the Patriarch turned to look at her. The Patriarch was astonished by her expression, which did not look relieved and grateful, as one would have expected, while Maria Zoë cast her a warning look. Isabella pressed her lips together furiously while her mother responded graciously, “That is indeed welcome news, your eminence. We will say Mass in thanks before dinner. Can we expect the Lord of Toron to rejoin his wife anytime soon?”
“Ah, um, yes,” Heraclius replied, “yes, I think you can look forward to greeting the Lord of Toron before All Saints,” he guessed, “which is more than can be said for the King,” he brought the conversation back.
“Yes, a king who loses his entire kingdom is in an awkward situation indeed. Who, after all, should pay his ransom, if the entire royal domain has been overrun by the enemy?” Maria Zoë noted acidly.
“That’s not entirely true, madame,” Heraclius pointed out, licking his lips. “Jerusalem has not yet fallen, nor Tyre, nor Tripoli, nor Jaffa, nor Ascalon, not to mention many of the most important fortresses—Safed, Kerak, Gaza, and Montfort.”
Maria Zoë stared at the Patriarch for a few seconds and then pointedly asked, “Tell me, your eminence, just how does the Queen intend to defend Jerusalem? To my knowledge, there is not a single Hospitaller or Templar knight left in the city, while the garrison consists of old men and untried boys.”
“My lady,” he licked his lips, “Madame, the Queen—the Queen—is not in a state to organize the defense of Jerusalem. She is, as I said, distressed over her husband’s fate, and too agitated and distracted to deal with—with other matters.”
“The Queen of Jerusalem is more concerned about her miserable husband than her Kingdom?” Maria Zoë asked pointedly, with a glance at Isabella.
“Yes, my lady, I’m afraid that’s the case.” The Patriarch had the decency to look embarrassed.
Maria Zoë let him stew in his own juice for a few seconds before remarking in a low voice, “Agnes de Courtenay must be turning over in her grave.” Whatever else Maria Zoë thought of her late hated rival, she had not been the kind of woman to collapse into self-pity when a crisis was at hand. “And what do you want of me, your eminence?” she asked bluntly.
“My lady, I thought—you are a Dowager Queen. You have authority. You enjoy the respect of the population. Now, more than ever, since your husband successfully escaped Hattin. I thought—I thought—perhaps you would be willing to assist me. We have to do something about the sanitation and the water before the wells are contaminated and disease breaks out. We are nearly sinking under refuse already!”
“Does the Queen know you are here?” Maria Zoë asked sharply.
“I—no. There was no point in telling her. She can talk of nothing but Guy and how he must need her now. Every time I see her, she begs me to ask the Sultan to give her permission to join her husband.”
“In captivity?” Maria Zoë could hardly believe her ears. “The anointed Queen of Jerusalem would give up her own freedom and put herself in enemy hands just to be with her husband?” She couldn’t fathom it. How could anyone—even a stupid goose like Sibylla—take so little consideration of her status, her dignity, and her symbolic importance to the Kingdom?
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