Balian had borrowed the Odyssey from Eschiva and sat at the salon table trying to read it by the light of a hurricane lamp. He desperately wanted to read it, so he could entertain Eschiva with it in the morning, but although he could read the letters, sound out the words, and occasionally even make out whole phrases, it wasn’t good enough. He could not read an entire stanza of verse, much less a page or an episode.
Tiring, he flipped through the pages half-heartedly hoping something he could understand would catch his eye. Instead, he was distracted by the beautiful illustrations. They were powerful, colorful, and evocative. They reminded him of the tales in the book, and he remembered lying on his belly on the cool tiles of his father’s palace in Beirut while his grandmother read to him in Greek.
She had been very old by then and she dressed in old-fashioned robes. She didn’t wear black like some widows; she permitted herself royal purple, dark blues and greens as well. Her voice was old too, but melodic. When she read the Odyssey, Balian had heard the waves of the sea carrying him away.
As he turned another page he was startled to find a piece of paper folded inside. Puzzled, he removed it and caught his breath. It was covered with beautiful illuminated letters. They were cast haphazardly across the page, forming no single word, just letters decorated with fishes and ships, gulls and sea monsters. He glanced toward the closed door of the aft cabin. Eschiva.
“What? Are you still up?” Philip asked in surprise, squinting in the unexpected light as he emerged from his cabin with the evident intent of going on deck to relieve himself.
“I was just reading—well, trying to read,” Balian admitted, hastily returning the sheet with the beautiful letters and glancing anxiously toward the door of the cabin where Eschiva slept. He didn’t want her to know he’d been up all night for nothing.
“Why?” Philip asked, still confused.
“I wanted to read it for Eschiva.”
“Wait. I’ll be back in a moment.” Philip disappeared to take care of his business, and when he returned he plopped himself down next to Balian. “Now,” he opened, addressing his friend seriously. “What is this about? You aren’t, you know—I mean she’s your cousin.”
“Yes, I know,” Balian answered sharply, an annoyed frown creasing his face.
“Well, so, you can’t seduce her, right?”
“No! Of course not!”
“And you can’t be serious about her either. I mean, if nothing else, you could do a lot better.”
“Her father, like mine, was regent of a kingdom. She’s the granddaughter of a king, while I’m the grandson of a queen. I think that makes us remarkably well suited in rank, don’t you?” Balian noted tartly.
“Yes, well, true, but—though I hate to admit it—you’re not bad-looking, so, as well as being an Ibelin, you can have any maid you want.”
Balian shrugged uncomfortably. He knew that. It had gotten him in enough trouble already. “I’ve had a lot of girls, Novare, and I’ve chased more. The prettier, the more conceited, I’ve found.”
Novare snorted. There was truth to that, but that didn’t stop him dreaming about the perfect maid: sweet-tempered, cheerful, biddable, rich, full-bodied, hot-blooded, breathtakingly beautiful, and virtuous—at least until he came along. Bringing his thoughts back to his friend, he asked. “So you really like her?”
“Yes, don’t you?”
Novare shrugged. “She’s not my type. Too—I don’t know—boring.”
“Boring? How many maids do you know could drug a guard and escape by night through a city to run away from the most powerful monarch on earth?”
“Well, she did have a little help,” Novare reminded his friend immodestly.
“Once she reached the port, yes, but she had to get there first. I think that took tremendous courage.”
Novare raised his hands in surrender. “No question, Bal. She must have spunk, I just don’t see….”
“Beyond her plain face,” Balian finished for him.
“Maybe you’re right. If her skin clears up more and she put on a little weight, she wouldn’t be half-bad.”
Balian nodded and looked down at the book on the table in front of him. “It’s not as though I’ve lost my heart to her, Novare. I would just have liked to entertain her a little. She must be terribly lonely, all alone in the world except for Eudes.”
Novare rolled his eyes at the mention of Eudes de Montbéliard, whom neither of them liked.
“It must also be very boring cooped up in the cabin all day and night,” Balian continued.
“No doubt, but—if you’ll forgive me for saying so—a little, meaningless kindness on your part could be quite misinterpreted. She’s probably never had any man pay her much attention. A few of your smiles could turn her head. You don’t want to break her heart when she finds out it all meant nothing to you, do you?”
“Of course not,” Balian dismissed the suggestion. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to trifle with her feelings. Go back to bed.”
Balian looked down again and his eyes fell on the first illustration. It showed Helen being led away by Paris. Helen had long golden hair and white skin; Paris was dark and dressed in armor. In the background, a king with a crown on his head slept in a bed with a baldachin. Helen of Troy had been the greatest beauty on earth and what had it gotten her husband? Ten years of bloody war. Penelope, on the other hand…. Balian shrugged and carefully closed the book.
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