“Oh, Balian, come!” She pulled him toward the window seat flanking one of the tall windows facing the sea. “We must talk,” she told him, still breathless from hurrying up the stairs.
Balian looked at her bemused. The only girl in a brood of boys, Bella was both one of them and special. She could tease and take teasing as well as any of her brothers, yet she was better than the rest of them. Balian recognized that she had a genuine calling to the Church—as long as you didn’t think of the Church as a place of pure contemplation and prayer. He thought she’d be best suited to the Hospitallers.
“I need your help, Balian,” Bella admitted candidly.
“In what way?”
“It’s Lady Eschiva.” Bella sighed. “She’s such a lovely soul, but she’s been so alone in the world. She’s lost everyone she loved: her mother and Yolanda. She hardly knows her brother and he certainly cares nothing for her.” Bella’s tone was indignant.
Balian smiled and quipped, “Well, you have been spoiled by your brothers.”
“Balian, I’m serious!” Bella answered frowning. “He used her for his own political ends by marrying her to a man who never wanted to be married at all. Gerard de Montaigu would rather be a priest. His uncles forced him into the marriage, and Gerard has treated Eschiva terribly. I don’t want to go into details. You have to believe me.”
Balian nodded. He did trust Bella’s judgment; he just didn’t understand what it had to do with him.
Bella continued, “Since her mother’s death, she has learned to be self-sufficient. She has built invisible walls to protect herself, and she creates her own world through her artwork. In Sicily, she used her art to protect both Yolanda and herself from the reality of the Hohenstaufen’s indifference. On Cyprus, she was working on copying out the psalms and illustrating them—allegedly as a gift to her husband, but more to protect herself from him.” Bella interrupted herself to ask, “You know she is a gifted illuminator?”
Balian nodded, remembering the page covered with whimsical and lively creatures set in letters he had found tucked in his grandmother’s copy of the Odyssey.
“When I visited her on Cyprus,” Bella continued, “she talked of finding ways to annul the marriage. She thought if she could avoid giving Montaigu an heir, he would lose patience and be happy to get rid of her.”
“I’m not sure I should be hearing these intimate details of another man’s marriage,” Balian noted uncomfortably.
“Oh, don’t be so male,” Bella dismissed. “Listen. Last fall she was unhappy in her marriage but fundamentally sound. Do you know what I mean? She had her head screwed on properly and her faith in God intact. She was looking rationally for ways out of her situation while working on other things that made her happy like the manuscript of psalms. She was also fighting back against that malicious old woman that Gerard had imposed on her, and she was evading the confessor the Archbishop of Nicosia had forced on her. She was fighting for herself—just as she fought against the Holy Roman Emperor.”
Balian nodded slowly. That was what he had liked about her from the start, that she had the courage and determination to shape her own destiny.
“But something happened on this voyage,” Bella told him. “I mean, Aunt Alys told me about the ordeal they all endured on the fishing boat. First, a storm that nearly overwhelmed them, then a day without food or water, as the boat drifted and ever so slowly sank. Montaigu’s little boy died sometime during this voyage, and none of the others noticed because the boy’s nanny wouldn’t let them near him. Eschiva only realized he was dead when she tried to hand him to their rescuers and he was stone cold. She had a dreadful shock.”
Balian murmured a sincere, “Poor Eschiva.”
“And, yet, she should have recovered—as she did from the assault of the sailors at Andria. Eschiva’s so strong, and she wasn’t close to the boy because the nanny never let her near him. His death shouldn’t have unbalanced her like this.”
“What do you mean ‘imbalanced’?” Balian asked cautiously.
“She’s lost her natural optimism, her self-confidence, her faith. She has withdrawn into herself, and I haven’t been able to reach her since. It’s as if she’s in a daze or a trance. She goes through the motions of living. She is preparing to join Montaigu in Acre because he ordered her to be there in time to travel to Jerusalem with the Holy Roman Emperor. But she is dead inside.”
“And what do you expect me to do?” Balian asked.
“Reach her!” Bella answered with desperate frustration. “Bring her out of the spiritual grave she has dug for herself. Shatter her self-hatred—because that is what has made her feel she deserves whatever Montaigu does to her. She says things like ‘I’m nothing.’ Or ‘My feelings don’t matter.’ It’s not self-pity. It’s deeper than that. It’s much more destructive.”
Balian respected Bella’s intuition. She understood people. At least most of the time. It was a gift she’d had since she was very little. But this time he wasn’t sure. “And why do you think I might be able to help?”
“Oh, Balian!” Bella threw up her hands. “As if you didn’t know! She’s head over heels in love with you. If you would show her just a little attention, affection. If you would make her feel loved—”
“That’s exactly what you told me NOT to do last time we were together,” Balian snapped.
“But that was different,” Bella protested. “That was before her marriage, before this horrible ordeal. She needs you now.”
“Bella, let me be sure I understand: Are you asking me to commit a mortal sin?”
“I don’t remember you thinking about your immortal soul when you seduced Denise—”
“That was three years ago, for God’s sake! I’ve grown up since then. A lot!” Balian’s tone was blistering, and Bella reached out to calm him.
He shook her off and jumped up to pace across to the fountain. Bella could feel his fury across the space between him, and she was bewildered. She had not expected his resistance. She had thought…. she nervously played with the end of her braid.
Balian’s fingers played with the surface of the water as it spilled over the edge of the wide marble bowl. The gurgling of the water was soothing; the water cooled his blood a little. After a bit, he took a deep breath and announced, “I will not play with her, Bella. She deserves better than that. She deserves love.”
“Yes, Balian,” Bella agreed contritely. “I’m sorry. I just thought….”
Balian let the words hang in the large, empty room for a moment and then prompted, “What? What did you think?”
Bella hardly dared say it and the words came out in a near whisper: “You haven’t been the same since you were tortured by the Emperor.”
Balian caught his breath and turned sharply to look at his sister.
“You’re so brittle, Balian. So tense and twisted with hatred.”
“I have every reason to hate that bastard!”
“I know,” Bella conceded contritely.
Balian didn’t acknowledge her answer but snarled instead. “And if I seem twisted to you it’s because my back still hurts so damned much that I can’t be the knight I should and want to be!”
“I’m sorry!” Bella gasped out, tears brimming in her eyes as silence fell between them again.
It seemed to stretch into eternity. As Bella watched her once sweet-tempered older brother smoldering in the darkness, the tears escaped and started down her face, but she didn’t dare say anything.
Finally, Balian broke the silence to announce in a brusque voice. “I need something to eat.”
“Of course,” Bella agreed, hastening to assure him, “I told the cook to heat up some of the meat pies we had at mid-day. I’m sure they’re ready for you.” She slipped off the window seat and hesitantly joined her brother by the fountain. She did not dare touch him. She was still too bewildered by his anger.
He looked down at her with an expression she could not read, but almost suspicious.
“I’m sorry, Balian. Really I am. I didn’t mean to insult you. I sincerely thought that you and Eschiva might be able to help one another. Maybe it was a stupid idea, but I meant well. Really, I did. I just wanted to help you both….”
Balian could see the marks of her tears and he took pity on her. He pulled her into his nearest arm and assured her, “It’s alright, Kitten. I know you don’t have a mean bone in your whole body, but you are a little out of your depth when it comes to love between men and women. Now, let’s go down to the kitchen before I get so hungry I take a bite out of your shoulder. It looks very delectable, you know, soft and juicy.”
Bella swatted at him, but she was biting back sobs. He kept his arm around her as he led them back toward the spiral stairs to the kitchen.
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