The arrival of Queen Maria Zoë Comnena in early August with a bevy of women and children had surprised but not unduly unsettled Conrad. Such a highborn lady could only be met with the utmost courtesy. She was a niece of the late Greek Emperor Manuel I, after all, and so by marriage she was a kinswoman. She brought with her, furthermore, her daughter by King Amalric of Jerusalem, the Princess Isabella. Conrad was not indisposed to play the role of gallant protector to a dowager queen and a nubile princess, particularly not after their first encounter had revealed that both women were beautiful in their different ways: Queen Maria Zoë stately, elegant, and dark, Princess Isabella blooming and soft.
He had been less pleased to discover, however, that Queen Maria Zoë had rapidly attracted a small but potent entourage of fighting men. Conrad had dismissed Ibelin as an insignificant baron only concerned about his personal affairs, and had been surprised to discover that among the knights and—more surprising—sergeants of Outremer he enjoyed a reputation for courage and leadership that was unequaled by any of his peers. Conrad had been inwardly disgruntled to discover that the arrival of Queen Maria Zoë had caused a minor sensation in the city (his city) and that hundreds of men had converged on the modest house he had assigned to the Lady of Ibelin to pay her and her (absent) husband homage.
It was perhaps natural that her second husband’s vassals and household knights felt honor-bound to his lady, while the knights of Nablus, her own barony, were naturally still pledged to her. It was less self-evident, and so distinctly disturbing, to realize that hundreds of sergeants and archers from across the lost Kingdom likewise looked to this obscure native baron for leadership—even when he wasn’t here! The knights of the Dowager Queen and her second husband rapidly formed themselves into a close-knit and quasi-independent force who could count on the unofficial support of a wider cross-section of fighting men. They would take his orders, Conrad believed, but only as long as Queen Maria Zoë did not contradict him. At the moment, of course, there was no reason why she should, but he knew from experience how independent and self-confident Imperial Greek women were. It would be foolish, he knew, to imagine that their interests would always align perfectly.
The news that Queen Maria Zoë was requesting an interview was, therefore, cause for consternation. “What does she want?” he asked the clerk who had brought him the news.
“I imagine she wishes more information about what happened in Jerusalem,” the priest answered unimaginatively. Conrad had inherited the staff of the archiepiscopal palace when he took up residence in it, and the staff was all clerical. That sometimes had its advantages. Priests were on the whole better educated, more discreet, and less inclined to theft, drunkenness, or disorder than secular servants. In this case, Conrad couldn’t decide if the man was mocking him or simply stupid.
“How in the name of our Blessed Savior should I be able to give her more information about what happened in Jerusalem?” Conrad snapped back.
“Do you want me to send her away?” the priest asked next.
“Don’t be ridiculous! She’s the Dowager Queen of Jerusalem! See her to the solar.”
Almost before he had finished speaking, Conrad jumped to his feet and made his way to his chamber. He hastily changed into one of his better silk surcoats, brushed traces of dirt from his suede boots, and combed his thick dark hair and mustache before hastening back to the solar. A few paces before the door, he slowed himself to a dignified pace and entered the solar with measured and weighty steps. (He had observed court etiquette well during his sojourns in Constantinople.)
He was startled to find two women awaiting him. The priest (he cursed him inwardly) had neglected to mention that the Dowager Queen was accompanied by her daughter, the Princess Isabella. Although he had seen Isabella before, notably on her arrival in Jerusalem, something about the way she looked today ignited his interest. She was dressed in burgundy trimmed with gold embroidery, and the insides of her wide outer sleeves were lined with shimmering sky-blue silk that matched the veils encasing her face and throat. She was really a very beautiful young woman, Conrad concluded, as he bowed gallantly over her hand. “Madame, what a pleasant surprise.”
Turning to her mother, he repeated his deep bow, and compensated for the breach of protocol in greeting her daughter first with a flood of welcoming words in passable Greek that stressed how honored he was to receive his “beloved” and “most esteemed” kinswoman. He ended with a declaration of shared distress over the fate of her husband.
Maria Zoë had not missed either the fact that Conrad all but devoured Isabella with his eyes or the fact that her daughter had blushed. More than blushed, really: Isabella looked like an unfolding blossom. She commented on neither fact. “My lord, I am here to ask a favor of you,” she announced instead.
Conrad bowed again and indicated that the Dowager Queen should take one of the large high-backed armed chairs at a table before a window that looked north along the coast. He assured her, “I would be delighted to be of service to you, Madame, provided it is within my power to do what you ask.”
Maria Zoë settled herself in the chair, her abundant purple silk taffeta skirts spilling in gracious folds around her legs and her sleeves enveloping the arms of the chair. Hem, sleeves, waist, and neckline were all trimmed with gold needlework studded with rolled amethysts, Conrad noted. He smiled to himself because she had clearly dressed in some of her finest to see him. “Yesterday,” Maria Zoë opened, “we were informed Jerusalem had fallen to Salah ad-Din. However, there were no specifics about the fate of my husband, who commanded the defense. I wish to send a messenger to the Sultan requesting that information.”
Conrad nodded and answered, “Understandable, Madame. Very understandable.” He found he had to make a conscious effort not to let his eyes shift to Isabella’s lovely face. It was ridiculous in a man his age, with as many conquests as he’d had, to be infatuated with a mere girl, he told himself, but the desire to look at her again was almost irresistible.
A priest glided into the solar with a tray of refreshments that he began offloading onto the small round table. Maria Zoë pointedly watched him offload the silver pitcher, chalices, and bowls (all objects that belonged to the absent Archbishop of Tyre), thanked the priest, and waited for him to depart again before asking Conrad, “Does that mean you will allow me to send someone?”
“I’m not sure, Madame. Whom should I put at such risk? Anyone issuing forth from Tyre and requesting an audience with the Sultan Salah ad-Din is as likely to face immediate execution as to be escorted to the Sultan. I can hardly order a man to take such a risk for the sake of information about the fate of one man, can I?”
“I have several volunteers, Monsieur, if that is your only concern.”
She made it sound as if she did not believe he was really worried about the fate of the messenger, while the reference to volunteers was a pointed reminder to Conrad that she had men willing to do her bidding. Yes, it would be wise not to underestimate this woman, Conrad concluded. “In that case, Madame, I can only wish them Godspeed.” He opened his hands in a gesture of invitation, but his gaze slid back to Isabella and his smile was directed at her rather than her mother.
Isabella smiled back, and it lit up the whole room. “Thank you so much, Monsieur!” she exclaimed enthusiastically. “You can’t know how much this means to my mother and me! Sir Bartholomew has promised to bring me back word of my lord husband as well,” she explained with juvenile candor.
Maria Zoë, watching closely, saw Conrad flinch before assuring Isabella smoothly that he was more delighted than ever to assist her in any way he could, and that he was “enchanted” to see two wives so concerned for the fate of their husbands. Maria Zoë rose to her feet to the rustle of silk taffeta and held out her hand. Conrad and Isabella hastily got to their feet and Conrad bowed low over Maria Zoë’s hand. He then turned and, with a smile only for her, bowed even lower over Isabella’s hand. “Please, come to me with whatever requests you have. I will always try to accommodate.”
Maria Zoë nodded and her lips smiled, but her eyes met Conrad’s coldly as she noted cynically, “As you have today.”
After they left the palace and were riding side by side back to their own residence, Isabella, who was still beaming, remarked to her mother, “Monsieur de Montferrat is very gallant, Mama, don’t you think?”
“He is very polished, well traveled, and good-looking,” Maria Zoë answered.
Isabella considered her mother, sensitive to her tone as well as her words. “That doesn’t sound entirely approving, Mama.”
“It’s not. Conrad de Montferrat is exceedingly ambitious and far too sure of himself for his own good.”
“I’m not sure what you mean by that,” Isabella admitted.
“Hmm,” Maria Zoë replied. She had no intention of telling her daughter that Conrad was a notorious seducer and settled for saying, “He calls himself ‘Caesar’ in his correspondence, although it is an empty title now that he has fled Constantinople, and he occupies the archiepiscopal palace as if he owned it.”
“But the Archbishop is away and no one knows when he will return. Why shouldn’t he live in the palace?”
“Lord Balian didn’t move into the royal apartments in Jerusalem just because Sibylla abandoned the city,” Maria Zoë reminded Isabella. “But no matter. Conrad de Montferrat has saved this city for Christ, and as long as we hold it, aid can come from the West. God willing!” She crossed herself and prayed that it would be so.
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