“I just want to die!” Isabella wailed, tears flooding over her face. “I don’t want to live without Henri. He was everything to me. He made life worth living. It’s not the same as when Conrad died. We quarreled so much. He didn’t really love me. Henri loved me, Uncle Balian. He really did!”
“I know he did, Bella,” Balian assured her, squeezing her tighter for an instant. “He still loves you—from beyond the grave. It must break his heart to see you like this.”
“What am I going to do?” Isabella asked, pulling back a little, so that Balian held her only loosely with his hands on her shoulders. “Mama says I have to go on living. That I am still Queen of Jerusalem. That I have no choice but to serve my kingdom.”
Balian glanced at his wife, and then turned back to his stepdaughter. “You certainly have to go on living,” he told her firmly. “If you take your own life, you damn your soul for all eternity, and so will be separated from Henri for eternity. He will certainly go to Heaven. You must know that?” he asked gently but reproachfully.
Isabella looked down and nodded.
Balian let go of her and backed off the bed, but remained standing beside it so he could hold her hand. “As for being Queen, if you truly want, you could abdicate and retire to a convent.”
Isabella looked up at him hopefully. “Truly?”
“Of course,” Balian assured her, despite the unhappy restlessness he could hear and sense behind him; Maria Zoë clearly did not approve of this advice. “But, of course, you would not be allowed to keep your children with you. You would have to turn all four of your little girls over to the care of the High Court.”
Isabella gasped, and then hiccupped eloquently. “That’s not fair!” she protested.
“Bella,” Balian reminded her gently, “a woman who renounces the world for God renounces all ties to her earthly family, and that includes her children. You know that.”
“But if I remain Queen, I’ll be forced to marry again!” Isabella protested. “How can I marry again, when I know I will never love another man? Sharing another man’s bed would be abhorrent to me! Consummation would be rape!”
This much Balian had expected, and he nodded calmly as he stroked the back of Isabella’s hand with his thumb. His calm acceptance of her outburst confused her, and she felt compelled to add, “I mean it, Uncle Balian. I could not bear to be intimate with another man after Henri. I would loathe him—and myself—for it!”
Balian nodded again and assured her, “I believe you, Bella, and I know how you feel. I know I could never share intimacies with another woman, if God should choose to take your mother from me before He calls me to Him.”
“So what is left for me to do? I can’t abdicate and retire to a convent without losing my children, and I can’t remain Queen without losing my sanity by being forced to take another man to my bed.”
Balian drew a deep breath. “The High Court will insist on a marriage, but they’re hardly going to stand around in your bedchamber to enforce consummation.”
“No, but what man would marry me for a crown and then risk losing that crown for lack of consummation?” Isabella shot back, making Balian smile inwardly. Isabella sometimes acted like she was all emotion, but underneath was a sharp brain.
To Isabella he simply weighed his head from side to side, trying to win time. He wasn’t sure she was ready to really consider alternatives yet. He chose subterfuge. “Well, there are men like Humphrey who abhor sexual contact with women.”
“Poor Humphrey!” Isabella exclaimed, and hiccupped again. Then she looked up sharply. “You don’t mean . . . ? Surely the High Court—you told me they would never accept Humphrey.”
Balian sidestepped the question about the High Court by reporting truthfully, “Humphrey has taken vows as a monk. He has joined a community of reclusive Greek Orthodox monks and vowed both chastity and poverty. But there are other men . . . like him,” Balian noted cautiously.
Isabella did not seem taken by the idea. He risked going further, and shrugged slightly as he remarked in what he hoped was still a purely speculative tone, “Or, alternatively, a man who already has a crown would be less obsessed with securing a second.”
“Kings don’t exactly grow on trees,” Isabella countered snidely. “And a man used to ruling will have little concern for my feelings. I’m not naive. I listened very closely to what Queens Joanna and Berengaria had to say about their marriages!”
“It’s true. Kings are used to getting their own way, but if he felt as you did . . . ”
Isabella frowned and sat up straighter, drawing her hand out of Balian’s. “What do you mean, ‘feels like I do?’ How can anyone feel like I do?”
“You’re right, Bella. No one could feel exactly as you do. You have suffered an exceptional blow. Henri was young and strong and healthy, and he had survived the battle with al-Adil only a week earlier. You must have seen God’s grace in that and felt secure in His love for both of you. Nor is this like Conrad’s assassination, because Conrad had made many enemies, and he had always lived on a knife’s edge.”
Isabella was frowning ever more intensely, and her body was taut. “You have someone in mind, don’t you, Uncle Balian? You’ve already decided for me.” She sounded resentful.
“No, Bella,” he answered steadily. “I have not decided for you, nor can I. The choice will be the High Court’s.”
“Certainly!” Isabella spat out indignantly. “And whose voice will be loudest and strongest there? You know they’ll do whatever you suggest.”
“No, Bella, it’s not that simple,” Balian countered calmly. “Furthermore, I can assure you that none of us on the High Court would impose our wishes upon you. We may suggest candidates to you, but it will be your choice. The Church, if nothing else, insists on consent—as you well know. You cannot be forced into a marriage against your wishes.”
“Who?” Isabella demanded.
Balian looked over his shoulder at Maria Zoë, because he had not had a chance to discuss this with her yet. He would have much preferred to consult her before sharing his idea with Isabella.
Maria Zoë got to her feet and joined him at the side of the bed. She said nothing, just looked up at him expectantly.
“I’ve spoken to no one about this—least of all the prospective bridegroom,” Balian told his wife and stepdaughter. “And there’s no need to discuss this immediately. I only—”
“I want to know who you are thinking about!” Isabella told her stepfather sternly and precisely, her lips clamped together.
“Balian didn’t do such a bad job choosing last time, sweetheart,” Maria Zoë reminded her daughter, leaning forward to stroke Isabella’s arm as she spoke, while looking again at Balian with raised eyebrows.
“I was thinking of a man who is also in mourning. A man grieving for the woman he loved, the mother of his children, and yet a man who is already king and so would not marry you for a crown, but rather for sake of defending your kingdom for you. A man who has proven his worth on the battlefield many times, but is also wise in counsel—”
“Aimery?” Isabella gasped out. “Eschiva’s Aimery?”
She sounded so shocked that Balian didn’t dare speak. He nodded mutely.
“It would be like betraying Eschiva!”
“If it is just a formal marriage, as you want, without any intimacies, then how is that a betrayal of Eschiva?” Maria Zoë asked gently.
Isabella looked at her mother, then back at her stepfather. Her expression was unreadable, but Balian took it as a good sign that she was not shouting at him hysterically or telling him to get out of her sight.
“Sweetheart, nothing has to be decided right now,” Maria Zoë suggested reasonably. “Why don’t you let your ladies take you down to the baths, and then you could go visit your little girls, while I see about a proper meal. We can have a quiet family dinner with Meg and John to celebrate your stepfather’s arrival. Then maybe you can get a good night’s rest and we can talk again in the morning. What do you think?”
Isabella looked at her mother tensely, her mind clearly sorting through a variety of possible answers before she took a deep breath and agreed. “Yes, Mama. I think you’re right. It’s time I left this bed, washed, and dressed. Don’t think I have agreed to this marriage!” she warned her parents sharply, but then continued in a calmer voice, “Still, I can’t continue hiding from the future, can I? I have to face it, and it’s easier to do that if I’m not a stinking wreck. Henri always wanted me to look and act like a queen. . . .”
“Because you are, Bella,” Maria Zoë reminded her softly, her hand still on Isabella’s arm.
Isabella looked at her mother as if she wanted to protest, but then she nodded. “Yes, I will concede that much: I would rather be queen than give up my little girls. I’ve neglected them, haven’t I?”
“No,” Maria Zoë answered with a tired but relieved smile. “You needed time to grieve, and it would have done your children no good to see you in this state. When you go to them, you need to be strong enough to comfort them.”
Isabella drew a deep breath. It meant a great deal that her mother did not reproach her for her behavior—because deep inside, she felt guilty about it. She had been self-indulgent these past ten days, and she knew it.
Then she looked up at her stepfather. He was still looking concerned and uneasy. “You see, Uncle Balian? You’ve managed to drag me back from the precipice after all. How do you do it?”
“I didn’t, Bella,” Balian told her, reaching out to pull her into his arms again. “You did it all on your own.”
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