The cheering of her people made the girl-queen blush with embarrassment, but it also made her smile and wave. Beirut’s heart went out to her. She was still so very young. Indeed, she was the same age as his only daughter, Bella. He couldn’t have borne the thought of sending his little girl across the water to an utter stranger, and he found his dislike of John de Brienne hardening.
Despite the death of his wife, Brienne continued to claim the crown of Jerusalem, dubiously Beirut thought, because of Yolanda. Yet he hadn’t bothered to visit her in five years. And while Beirut recognized the advantages of Yolanda’s marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor, he was also a father. He loved his six children more than his own life, and sometimes more than Jerusalem. Based on what he had heard, he would not have sent his daughter Bella to marry Frederick Hohenstaufen—not for all the gold in Constantinople.
Queen Yolanda approached, flanked on one side by Eudes de Montbéliard and on the other by a young woman Beirut did not recognize. “Who is the young lady with the Queen?” Beirut asked Sidon.
“Ah, that is Eudes’ sister Eschiva. The Queen asked her to join her household,” Sidon hastened to explain, anticipating Beirut’s objections to the “parvenu” Montbéliards again successfully positioning themselves close to the crown.
To Sidon’s surprise, Beirut nodded with approval. Now that they were nearer, he recognized the girl as the most sensible of all the maidens in attendance on the Queen over the past three weeks. He had noticed and approved of the way she had kept to the background while the other girls preened and flirted—all too often with his son Balian. More important, it had been this girl who repeatedly calmed or encouraged an uncertain and nervous Yolanda. He simply had not realized that she was Montbéliard’s daughter. Now that Sidon identified her, however, he noticed that she shared a family resemblance with her brother from the bright blond hair and blue eyes to the long face and nose. Unlike her brother, however, she smiled and chattered excitedly with the Queen. Like his son Hugh, she seemed delighted to be going West, something that would surely help the Queen overcome her obvious foreboding.
As the Queen reached the gangway to the Imperial dromond, she drew up. At once, a knight from her entourage sprang down to hold her off-stirrup. As she touched the ground, a groom came forward to lead her horse away. Meanwhile, the ship’s captain descended the gangway to bend his knee, his hand on his heart, before her. Beirut was glad she was traveling on an Imperial ship commanded by a Sicilian captain because there had been some very unseemly squabbling between the Pisans, Genoese and Venetian communities of Outremer about who should have the honor of transporting the Queen and her party.
Before the captain could lead Yolanda aboard his ship, however, Beirut stepped forward. “My lady queen!”
Yolanda turned, startled, in the direction of his voice. She looked at Beirut uncertainly, unsure who he was.
“John d’Ibelin, Lord of Beirut, my lady.” Beirut helped her out of her dilemma, and she broke into a wide smile.
“Of course, my lord. I should have remembered you, but I’ve met so many new people these last few weeks.”
“I understand entirely, my lady. I have come to see you off, and give you a little gift—more for your voyage than your marriage.” As he spoke he gestured to his sons, and Balian at once opened his father’s saddlebag to remove an object wrapped in painted leather. He handed this to his father, and Beirut unwrapped the leader cover to withdraw a book. This he held out to Queen Yolanda.
Eschiva de Montbéliard had come to stand behind her queen. At the sight of the book, she let out a little gasp of delight.
Beirut cast the Montbéliard girl a smile before addressing the Queen again. “This was your great-grandmother’s book. She would have wanted you to have it.”
Queen Yolanda looked up at him frowning slightly as she tried to work it out. “My great-grandmother? Queen Maria Comnena? Your mother?” Yolanda might not have recognized him, but she had learned the lessons about her dynasty well.
“Exactly.” Beirut lovingly opened the ivory cover of the book to reveal the interior, eliciting another appreciative gasp from the Montbéliard girl. “It is, I am afraid, in Greek, but I was told you were taught Greek.” It was as much a question as a statement.
The Queen nodded vigorously, going on tip-toe to see the book better. Beirut at once lowered his hands to make it easier for her to see and explained. “It is the story of a Greek sailor trying to return home after a long war in what is now the Empire of Nicaea. Along the way, he suffers many adventures and hardships that take him all across the Mediterranean. Although the journey is embellished with many fanciful beasts and mythical adventures, still I think you will find it a lively and informative companion on your journey. At least I hope you do.” Beirut bowed deeply and handed the book to his Queen.
Yolanda took it from him and held it to her still flat chest. “It is very, very kind of you, my lord! I can’t wait to read it!” For an instant, she was a little girl again rather than a queen and bride.
Beirut bowed again. “I hope it will always bring you pleasure—and remind you of your home and your heritage.”
Yolanda seemed to want to say more, but Eudes de Montbéliard was moving from foot to foot to indicate his impatience. He cleared his throat and admonished, “We do not want to miss the tide, my lady.” He always managed to sound as if he thought he knew better than everyone else, Beirut thought.
Yolanda responded as if she had been guilty of some misdeed and hastened to do as Montbéliard urged. She started for the ship, but then she stopped to say over her shoulder with heartfelt emphasis, “Thank you again, my lord! I love books!”
Montbéliard shooed his queen and his sister aboard the ship, giving her no chance to stay on deck to watch them cast off. They are prisoners already, Beirut thought—not entirely logically. Yolanda was on her way to be crowned Holy Roman Empress—arguably the most powerful woman on earth. So why did he feel so sorry for her, and so sad?
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