It was still the dead of night by the darkness around him and the chill in the still air. Even the horses were silent. He turned over and closed his eyes, but sleep was impossible. Throughout the day he had treated the excommunication as something that impacted the others and their relationship with him. In the dark of night, he was alone with the implications for himself. He would remain an outcast of the Church until he ended his “sinful” relationship with Eschiva, repented, and confessed his sins, but he had sworn to her he would never discard her—ever or for any reason.
Balian threw back the blanket and left his pallet. He grabbed his shirt from the floor to cover his nakedness and left the grange to stare up at the stars. “God in Heaven,” he thought looking at the splendor of the stars, “is it really a sin to love a woman? Is it a sin to love a good woman? A woman who loves me? A woman without any other protector? Is it Your Will that a greedy Archbishop gets his way at the price of the happiness of others? Does this excommunication have anything to do with me and Eschiva at all? Or is it about Eschiva’s estates and the Emperor’s hatred of my father?”
“Are you alright, Bal?” Sir Philip asked from behind him.
Balian turned and smiled faintly at Novare. “I’m alright, I think.”
“I know it seems hard, but there are other fish in the sea.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll have no trouble finding a new wife. You’re not a bad catch, even without Beirut, which we shouldn’t write off just yet. After all, if we fail here, there’s still a chance your father will be able to raise enough support in Acre to drive the Emperor’s men out of the town and secure the citadel again.”
Balian stared at Novare. “Is that the way you see it? That Eschiva is just a political alliance?”
“No, I know you took a fancy to her too, but when you come down to it, the charms of all women fade. Look at my Stephanie. When I bedded her, I thought she was Queen Guinevere, Cressida, and every other heroine wrapped into one. She was the fairest and most virtuous of all ladies to have ever walked the face of the earth. I was her knight, her Lancelot, her Troilus, and I believed I would love her for all eternity. Six months later she had already revealed herself for the conniving bitch she was. She was fat, smug, and had me trapped. You were one of only a handful of people, besides my household and her father, who even knew about her and our marriage because we were both so young and the union was so unpolitical. Now I hide her out of shame—because she is an empty-headed, vain, cackling goose that I am embarrassed to be seen with. I swear, a chicken without its head has more sense than she has. I would be delighted to be in your shoes and suddenly have an excuse to set her aside!”
“And your son, my godson, little Balian? You could disinherit him without a qualm?” Balian asked, temporarily distracted from his own worries.
“Let me be honest. All I’m likely to leave him are debts. Even here, my steward tells me everything I earn in rents must be reinvested in the mill or it will break down completely. No matter what I do, I can’t seem to get out of debt.”
“Less gambling might help,” Balian pointed out.
“Easy for you to say! You don’t like gambling.” Philip retorted irritably. He didn’t need any lectures on his gambling. It was one of his pleasures and he felt he had a right to it. “Besides, sometimes I win,” he defended himself. He had won against the other knights at dice just the night before. “I didn’t come out here to discuss my gambling, but your marital problems—which aren’t problems at all. See it as an opportunity. If things go well, your father might secure Princess Maria of Cyprus for your bride.”
Balian shook his head. “That’s not the point, Philip. I don’t care what bride my father might be able to find for me because Eschiva isn’t like your Stephanie. She has done nothing to deserve repudiation. Indeed, she has earned my absolute loyalty and I have sworn it to her.”
“Don’t look at it like that. You aren’t repudiating her. You have been ordered to set her aside by none other than His Holiness the Pope. You don’t have a choice and neither does she. Do you really think she will mind so much? She retains her wealth and can either marry someone else or, what might suit her better, she can enter a convent and spend all her time painting her little drolleries. She appears to be barren after all.”
Balian heard and resented the condescension in Philip’s tone. “Just because you married where your loins led you—and got what you deserved for preferring a pretty face over a good mind—is no reason to deny and dismiss the love of others!”
“The love of the troubadours and romances is an illusion, Balian. It doesn’t exist in real life.”
“Just because you have not known it, does not mean it doesn’t exist.”
“All right,” Philip agreed. “Let’s assume for the sake of argument that it does exist. How does that change anything? Does the papal ban apply only if you do not love one another?” He paused to let his words sink in before continuing. “Whether you love her or not, you cannot remain with her. Your marriage is invalid in the eyes of the Church, and—”
“Stop right there, Philip.” Balian turned on his friend. This discussion had cleared away any last doubts. “You say it is ‘invalid in the eyes of the Church,’ but is it invalid in the eyes of God?”
“If the Pope says so, yes.”
“What do you mean ‘no’? Are you going to try to argue with the pope in an ecclesiastical court? Don’t be ridiculous.”
“No. I’m not going to argue my case with men in the pocket of the Holy Roman Emperor.” Balian replied. “Sir William saw this clearly from the start. This has nothing to do with Eschiva and me. It is part of the Emperor’s attack on my father. Just because the Pope now dances to the Emperor’s tune does not mean I should or will. I took Eschiva to wife before witnesses at the altar of Our Lord and no man—not even the Pope—can end that union.”
“If the union was invalid from the start, Bal!” Novare countered. “Your uncle was married to Eschiva’s aunt.”
“Neither the Greeks nor Jacobites consider my marriage as incestuous.”
“What?” Philip was blindsided by the argument.
“I looked into it,” Balian told him, enjoying Novare’s astonishment. Because he was not considered particularly intellectual, people tended to underestimate his ability to research things that interested him. “When the Archbishop of Nicosia threatened us with excommunication in March of last year, I went to the Greek bishop of Nicosia and also sought out a priest of the Jacobite church. They both told me that my marriage to Eschiva was not incestuous.”
Novare gazed at him stunned. “You’re serious? You’re not going to accept the Pope’s ban? You’re going to remain with Eschiva regardless?”
“Even if it means attending the Greek church for the rest of my life.”
Novare could not think of an answer.
Balian smiled at him. “Have you forgotten my grandmother was Greek?” Then clapping Philip on the shoulder, he remarked, “Thank you for playing devil’s advocate, Philip. You’ll make a great pleader in the courts one day.”
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