The Dowager Queen of Jerusalem watched her daughter in silence. It was good to see her eldest daughter so happy. It was good to see her enjoying motherhood, and even better to know she was at last happy with her husband after two marriages that had each been difficult in different ways. Humphrey de Toron had probably been a sodomite and certainly impotent, never consummating the marriage to Isabella; Conrad de Montferrat had been a good lover but overbearing and self-important, unwilling to recognize Isabella as an intelligent being. Henri de Champagne, in contrast, both adored his bride and respected her as his queen. Seeing Isabella like this was some compensation for the memories of the wreck Isabella had been during her wrenching divorce from Toron, much less the horror of watching Montferrat die in agony in her arms. Maria Zoë found it hard to break in on her daughter’s private joy, knowing that she was going to shatter it the moment she raised the topic of Aimery de Lusignan’s arrest.
“Mama!” Isabella noticed her mother at last. “How long have you been standing there?”
“I just arrived,” Maria Zoë lied with a smile as she swept into the nursery. “And how is my granddaughter doing today?”
“She’s as lovely as ever!” Isabella responded, willingly handing her daughter over to her mother as she offered both cheeks in greeting.
Maria Zoë smiled down at her namesake and bounced her in her arms gently, but when little Marie decided she’d had enough and let out a loud wail, she happily handed her off to the Syrian wet nurse.
Distracted by her mother, Isabella made no attempt to interfere with the nurse, asking instead, “What brings you to Acre? When you left after Christmas Uncle Balian” (as a child Isabella had picked up the habit of referring to her stepfather as “Uncle Balian”) “said he didn’t expect to be back until after the sowing was finished.”
“True. We didn’t expect an emergency.”
“Emergency? What’s happened? Have the rains caused flooding—”
Maria Zoë was shaking her head, “No, no. Shall we sit outside in the fresh air?” She indicated the courtyard bathed in morning sunshine.
Isabella slipped her arm through her mother’s, and together they went out into the little courtyard. The sun was pouring in and the surrounding buildings protected it from the wind. They sat down on a plaster bench built against the wall, and Isabella looked expectantly at her mother. “Tell me! What is it?”
“Actually, you must already know,” Maria Zoë started cautiously. Her relationship with Isabella was close, but it had also been stormy at times. There had been tense periods when Isabella had been rebellious and aggressive. “Your brother John rode all night to reach us.”
“Oh!” Isabella gasped and drew back slightly, her face flushing. “You mean Aimery’s arrest. Henri had to!” She defended her husband at once. “He can’t risk him plotting against us for another hour! He promised me he would not put him in chains or anything like that, but he had to ensure Aimery could not communicate with his brother or the Pisans!”
Maria Zoë was relieved to hear that Isabella had at least extracted a promise of good treatment; that alone would mean a great deal to Eschiva. More important, it suggested that her daughter was not entirely indifferent to her best friend’s husband. To her daughter she asked simply, “What is this all about, Isabella? You’ve known Aimery all your life. You know he’s sacrificed the better part of his life for Jerusalem. How can you think he might have turned traitor now?”
“He’s a Lusignan, Mama! And you know his brother has never stopped claiming the crown of Jerusalem. Guy did everything he could to prevent me obtaining what was rightfully mine. He even talked Humphrey into telling me I had no claim as long as he lived. And don’t you remember how he tried to ingratiate himself with the Dowager Queen of Sicily, hoping to marry her? He’s still looking for a new wife. If he marries again and has children, he will claim Jerusalem for them!” Isabella hardly stopped for breath as she fervently delivered this monologue.
Maria Zoë knew her daughter’s passionate nature, and nodded before countering in a reasonable tone, “I don’t doubt a word you’re saying, Bella. Guy has been an intriguer, a seducer, and arrogantly blind to his own faults for as long as I’ve known him—which is more than a decade. But Aimery is not Guy—any more than you are Sibylla.”
Isabella had always hated her older half-sister Sibylla, so the argument made her catch her breath and start biting her lower lip. Maria Zoë pressed her point. “I know Aimery backed Guy’s usurpation six years ago, but he has lived to regret that a thousand times over. He’s told me that himself, he’s told your stepfather, and he’s told your brother the same thing. I honestly do not think that he could be involved in any kind of plot against you or Henri, even if—as has not yet been proved—his brother is behind the Pisan pirates preying on our shipping.”
Isabella was frowning and biting her lip in distress. “You’re probably right, Mama. I want to believe you, for Eschiva’s sake if nothing more, but arresting him was a precaution Henri had to take. If he’s innocent, then I’m sure Henri will release him.”
Maria Zoë took a deep breath and concluded this was probably the most she could hope to gain at the moment. Pressing Isabella too hard could easily trigger an angry rejection of “interference.” It would have been easier to back off, however, if she hadn’t spent the night with Eschiva and her children. Eschiva, usually so calm and self-possessed, had broken down and cried in Maria Zoё’s arms. Eschiva had lived with Maria Zoë and Balian as a child, and the ties had never weakened. Maria Zoë loved Eschiva like one of her own daughters, and she knew how much Eschiva had suffered over the years—from Aimery’s infidelities in his youth, from his captivity after Hattin and his absence at the siege of Acre, and more recently from the uncertainties of this last military campaign under the King of England. She and Aimery had only just started to rebuild their lives—and now this.
“That’s really the best I can promise,” Isabella spoke into Maria Zoë’s thoughts, sounding faintly defiant already.
“I know, Bella,” Maria Zoë chose tactical retreat. “That’s all I ask.” She smiled and kissed her firstborn on the forehead and then stood. “I must get back to Eschiva. She’s understandably very distraught and frightened.”
“You must assure her that no matter what comes to light about Aimery, she will always be a sister to me. I promise she’ll never be made to suffer, even if Aimery is found to be a traitor.”
“Ah, but sweetheart, if anything happens to Aimery she will suffer, because she loves him—not as you love Henri, nor indeed as I love your stepfather, but as a woman who has known no other husband since she was eight years old. Aimery is her life, Bella. If you take Aimery away, Eschiva will simply die.” Maria Zoë patted her daughter’s shoulder as if comforting her—but judging by Isabella’s stricken face, her message had gone home.
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