Commander Guillaume lowered his voice to avoid being overheard. “My lady, I have been informed that your marriage to Balian d’Ibelin has been nullified by His Holiness on grounds of consanguinity and that you were excommunicated as a result. I’m sure you understand the awkward situation this puts us in. We can hardly house an excommunicate with scores of innocent Christian women and their children. However, I am prepared to hear your confession and give you absolution so that you can be restored to the community of Christ. Do you wish to come with me now?” He had been edging her toward the large Hospitaller church that took up the entire northern wall.
“Absolution?” Eschiva heard herself ask. “If I confess and repent?”
“Yes, yes. I can hear your confession now. No one else need ever know that you were excommunicated—beyond those who already know, of course.” He glanced significantly at Zack.
“Repent marrying Lord Balian?” Eschiva asked again.
A frown crossed Brother Guillaume’s face. “Repent marrying within the prohibited degrees of kinship without papal dispensation.” He rephrased her sin.
“But I had a papal dispensation,” Eschiva told him stubbornly. “From the Papal Legate to the Holy Land, Patriarch Gerold.”
“Very well, but not relevant, I’m afraid, since His Holiness has chosen to override his legate and issue the ban of excommunication. Now, there is a great deal to do with so many unexpected guests. Do you wish to avail yourself of my offer or not?”
Brother Guillaume was clearly annoyed by her reluctance, and she could not blame him. He was trying to make things easier for her, to avoid isolating her from the other women, or shaming her in front of them. He was trying to help. Only she was unable to accept his offer. She did not repent marrying Balian. Eschiva shook her head, provoking an exasperated sound from the Hospitaller. “I can’t, sir,” she told him honestly.
“In that case,” the Hospitaller Commander told her firmly, “I cannot offer you the hospitality of this house. I cannot give refuge to an excommunicate, and it would be particularly inappropriate in the current circumstances, when the house is full of women and children!” He was angry with her, but she could tell he did not really want to slam the door in her face either. “You must see that!” he reasoned. “Make you confession and all will be well. The penance I impose will be commensurate to the crime of trusting a Papal Legate—hardly a serious breach were it not for the unfortunate consequences you now have. Come.” He smiled encouragingly.
Eschiva still could not do it. She could not break her vow to Balian. He was the only person in the world who loved her. She understood perfectly that he might have already confessed his “sins” and abandoned her, but what if he hadn’t? She took a step backward. “I can’t,” she repeated.
“Don’t you realize what danger you are in?” The Hospitaller spoke urgently. “We’ve heard terrible rumors that the Emperor’s mercenaries are behaving as if they were in some heathen country. They are not respecting the laws of chivalry!”
“Then for the love of God let me stay!” Eschiva countered. Still reeling from the Templar dismissal, she was unable to think clearly. The nervousness of the whole city, Aunt Alys’ fear, Cecilia’s terror—all awoke a visceral horror. She was close to panic.
“Not as an excommunicate! I cannot endanger the souls of all the innocent people entrusted to my Order by thrusting an excommunicated woman in their midst. Don’t you realize what that means? It could bring the wrath of God upon us all! Is it really that difficult to admit that you are Balian d’Ibelin’s cousin and therefore cannot be his wife?”
“You don’t understand,” Eschiva responded desperately.
“Then explain.” The Hospitaller countered bluntly with an attempt at patience.
Eschiva wanted to explain, but she was a visual artist. She could not find words readily. She stammered out, “My lord isn’t just my husband; he is my life!”
“How can he be your life?” the Hospitaller scoffed in annoyance. “If Ibelin were to be struck down by the hand of an enemy would you too bleed? Would you die with him? Of course not! You are being foolish and hysterical.”
That was what her brother had so often told her too, and the familiar accusation pierced the fog of panic. Indignation replaced terror. She was not hysterical, and she was not helpless. Balian had always praised her courage; she would prove herself worthy of him. She turned her back on the Hospitaller and went back out into the street.
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