Balian took a deep breath. “I had meant to raise this with you at another time, but maybe it has bearing on this. . . . ”
“Speak up, Balian. You’re too old to please with a stallion. I would give you more.”
“Would you give me a wife?” Balian asked with an amused expression and a teasing glint in his eye.
Beirut laughed. His son, it seemed, was still interested in women after all. He should have known. Then sobering, he declared earnestly, “If she’s worthy of being Lady of Beirut, yes.”
“She’s the granddaughter of a king,” Balian answered, a smile playing at his lips.
“Which king?” Beirut shot back; there were good kings and bad, after all.
“Aimery de Lusignan,” Balian answered smugly.
Beirut had been Aimery de Lusignan’s squire in his youth and retained in adulthood the deepest respect and affection for him. He immediately went through the granddaughters of Lusignan mentally. They included King Henry’s two sisters, who Balian would have seen a great deal of in the last months, but he dismissed them because Balian would surely have referred to them as the daughters and sisters of kings. That left the Armenian girls, who Balian could hardly know, the daughters of Antioch, and—“Your cousin Eschiva de Montbéliard.” It was a statement, not a question.
Balian nodded, his eyes fixed on his father’s.
Beirut thought hard. He had been impressed with the girl as far back as five years ago when she had been selected as lady-in-waiting and companion of Queen Yolanda when the latter sailed for Sicily to marry Frederick II. Eschiva had been only 15 at the time, but poised and supportive of the frightened, still younger queen. She had fled from the Emperor’s harem in panic after the Queen Yolanda’s death, something he approved of far less. Still, to give credit where it was due, she had shown intelligence in drugging the harem eunuch, and courage in getting herself down to the port. There she had requested transport back to Cyprus aboard, as chance would have it, Balian’s ship. At first, he’d been suspicious that Balian had seduced her during the voyage, but not only had Balian forcefully denied it, she herself had never given him any reason to think she had lost her virtue. She had subsequently married Sir Gerard de Montague. The latter was a nephew of the Templar Master and there had never been recriminations or even a hint that she had been anything but a virgin bride. She certainly had not become pregnant.
“She saved my life, Father,” Balian broke into his thoughts, his eyes still fixed on his father’s.
Beirut nodded. It was true. The first time the Emperor demanded the surrender of Beirut it had been at a banquet where all the Cypriot knights and barons had been unarmed yet surrounded by the Emperor’s armed mercenaries. Beirut had walked out with the bulk of the Cypriots, but Balian had landed in a pillory in a dungeon. Beirut had had no choice but to withdraw to the castle of St. Hilarion and hold it as a bargaining chip for his sons’ release. Balian and Baldwin had been brutally beaten, mocked and half-starved by Sir Amaury Barlais, one of the Emperor’s protégés. Balian, if not both of them, might have died there had not Lady Eschiva de Montbéliard gotten word to her cousin, young King Henry, of their plight. King Henry had demanded to see the prisoners and at the sight of them, the Hospitaller Master had interceded immediately on the prisoners’ behalf. Even so, Balian had been crippled by back pain for nearly a year.
Now Eschiva was a widow. Her husband had been killed at the Battle of Nicosia, fighting with the Ibelins. Furthermore, it was 18 months since his death. There was nothing indecent about a remarriage now. She was, after all, only 20. The only problem was that she was Balian’s cousin; her father’s sister had been married to Beirut’s own brother Philip. “You will need a papal dispensation,” Beirut said out loud.
Balian grinned with evident relief. “Yes, we will. Does that mean we have your blessing?”
Beirut nodded slowly. “She’s the woman who tamed you, isn’t she?”
Balian laughed. “I don’t feel tamed.”
His father laughed with him. “No man ever does, so I’ll reword it: she is the woman you’ve had your eye on for a long time.”
“Ever since she saved my life.”
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