“I asked you to come today, not only to discuss the king.”
Good, Balian thought, then I have not deceived myself.
“As Lady of Nablus, I will need good men around me. A viscount, constable, marshal, seneschal, and more.” She looked up at him, hopefully.
Balian stopped breathing. Go with her? Be her knight? Her vassal? Her man? The offer was tempting—and disappointing at the same time. He pictured it, but the more he considered it, the more he rejected it. It was not what he had hoped for, nor was it the relationship he sought. He shook his head. “They are lucky men to have you as their lord, my lady.”
“Then, why….don’t you want to be one of them?” She was baffled.
He did not dare tell her the truth for fear his ambitions would offend her. “Baldwin still needs me.”
“Does he? For how much longer? He’s thirteen. Two years from now, he’ll come of age. Do you think he’ll still need you then? Or is it that you believe he will reward you better than I can?”
Balian heard the hurt in the sharpness of her tone. He had wounded her by rejecting her, and he did not want that. “My lady, hear me out. In the coming years, Baldwin will be increasingly besieged by men intent on manipulating him. The very fact that he has been so isolated these last years will make it harder for him to distinguish between sincerity and flattery. William and I feel we have an obligation to stand by him, at least in the first two to three years, as he grows into his position. After that, however, when he comes of age, then my position will, hopefully, change.” He hoped that didn’t sound presumptuous, but what could be more natural than the king rewarding a man who had served him for so many years at risk to his own health?
“I see.” Her voice was tight.
“My lady, please do not be offended. I will miss you deeply, but my circumstances do not allow me to follow you.”
“But I am offering you a position, sir,” she emphasized, her eyes pleading with him. “Your circumstances would change if you came with me.”
“Yes, I understand, but” he hesitated and then forged ahead, “I do not want to be your servant or your vassal. When I come to you, madame, I want to come as a worthy suitor, not a beggar in search of alms.”
She recoiled, evidently shocked. “You are perhaps too proud, sir. I cannot promise to wait for you to make your fortune.”
Stung, Balian took a step back and bowed his head. “I did not presume to ask you to.”
She looked away. The tension in the room was tangible again. Balian knew he had blundered, but he did not know how to make things right again.
Maria broke the silence. Her voice was strained but steady. “Let me know when the king wishes to see me.”
The meeting was over. Balian stood, bowed, and withdrew. It had not gone as he had hoped. Had he been too proud? Too honest? Or not bold enough? Maybe he should have risked more? Maybe he should have broken the rules?
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