As he collected his papers, again thanking the queen for lending him a copy of the Alexiad, she reached out and ever so slightly touched his hand. “William.” It came out almost as a whisper and he stopped stunned. She had never touched him before, not even by mistake. “William?”
“Yes, my lady?”
“Would you,” she seemed unsure of herself, which was most unlike her. “Would you have a moment more?”
“Of course, my lady.” He sat down at once and composed himself. He had no idea what was coming next, but he knew that whatever it was it was going to take all his tact, intelligence and understanding of human nature.
“We have known each other a long time now. I remember meeting you in the City, when you were on the delegation sent to find a bride for King Amalric.”
“Indeed, my lady, I remember that very well. You impressed me even then.”
She bowed her head in a gracious gesture of gratitude and continued. “Since we started collaborating on Prince Baldwin’s education, we have become friends, I think,” she ventured tentatively.
“I would not presume to call myself your friend, my lady, seeing that I am a lowly clerk and you my queen, but I have come to admire and respect you and greatly enjoy our conversations. Is there something I can help you with?”
“I thought, maybe, you could—could explain to me why people don’t—don’t like me.”
“Madame! Your husband the king is devoted to you! You mustn’t let his minor—what shall we call them?—indiscretions mislead you. He sins with other women out of an insatiable appetite for carnal pleasure. It is a flaw in his character, but in no way a reflection on you or his feelings for you. I am one hundred percent confident that he loves you.”
“Thank you, that is reassuring to hear, and echoes my assessment as well. It is not the king’s indiscretions that distress me, William. Rather, I hoped you could explain why I’m not popular with the court and the commons? People never seem happy to see me.”
William adjusted himself in his chair. He was not going to insult her by denying this was true, but he wanted to be gentle too. “My lady, there is much prejudice against the Greeks in the realm. Just as many in Constantinople think poorly of all Latins. Many of the king’s subjects consider the Greeks arrogant, haughty, treacherous, and duplicitous. They transfer those feelings to you, without any attempt to judge you as an individual.”
She nodded, but continued to look at him with large, golden eyes that betrayed her vulnerability. “And that is true even for people at court?”
“For some, yes, because even at court you have never taken off the veils of dignity and station to reveal the remarkable and likable woman underneath.”
“But—I am the queen. I was raised to always behave with dignity and maintain distance from my subjects.”
“Dignity and distance need not obliterate warmth, interest, and understanding, my lady. You cannot expect people to like you if you remain a symbol, if none of your humanity is evident. As a child bride, I suspect you kept your distance and responded with formulas because these were cloaks of comfort to protect you from the unknown and the unfamiliar. That is understandable, but you have clung to them for too long. You need to cast them off and show more of yourself to the world.”
“But—what should I show them? What do they want of a queen if not something dignified and majestic? Don’t they want something awe-inspiring and admirable?”
William fussed with his tight-fitting cap and then folded his ink-stained fingers on the table in front of him. “Think of it like this, my lady. For the poor, a queen is like the Virgin Mary. She is distant and awe inspiring and powerful—but she is also a conduit to Christ. In Constantinople, you depict the Mother of God mostly in a dignified and serious pose. She supports Christ in front of her or on her arm, giving him to the world. But in the Latin tradition, the Virgin is often shown as a young mother, not just holding but caressing, even nursing, her son. She is a little less divine and a little more human. That is the way we like our queens too. Kings should be just and merciless to evildoers; queens, on the other hand, should show compassion for all. Kings need to be hard and capable of difficult decisions and choices; queens need to be mediators and compromisers. What people want from a queen, therefore, is someone that is approachable and sympathetic to their problems and petitions.”
Even as he spoke, William wondered if there was a warm, generous, and compassionate woman behind the queen’s facade. The private hours spent with her had enabled him to discover the agility of her intellect and the depth of her knowledge. He had been delighted by her wit and flashes of humor. Yet, he was a scholar and had never been wildly popular himself. He feared that even if Maria set aside some of her formality, she might yet fail to charm the court much less the masses. She just wasn’t the kind of woman that exuded warmth and won hearts easily.
“Oh. Yes. I see.” She sat opposite him completely composed, with her hands neatly folded in her lap. “William, could you answer one more question?”
“Of course, my lady?”
“Between us, in these conversations, have I been distant or haughty? Have I been arrogant?”
“Not at all, my lady. You have been delightful and charming!”
“Why then…why doesn’t Sir Balian come as often as before?”
“Ah.” William settled back in his chair and smiled at Maria, amused, but not unpleased to discover she was woman enough not to be indifferent to a handsome young knight. That suggested that she did indeed have more warmth and compassion than she showed.
“What does that mean?” She asked a fraction sharply.
“Well, let me put it this way. No young man likes to be called a ‘barbarian.’ Or told that he is ‘ignorant’ or ‘blood-thirsty.’”
“But I didn’t do that! All I said—I was explaining how others see the Latins. I just wanted him to understand—I didn’t mean to imply….” She looked mortified.
“Yes, I’m sure, but you understand now.”
“Could you tell him that I didn’t mean to insult him? Could you explain? Tell him I apologize. Convince him to come with you next time. Please.”
“I will have a talk with him, my lady. Now, it is getting late, and I’m sure you have more important things to do than speak with me.”
She got to her feet. “Thank you, William. Please tell Sir Balian that I look forward to seeing him again because—because I greatly respect him and enjoy his contributions to our discussions.”
William bowed deeply. “I will tell him, my lady.”
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