It was a great destiny to be a queen, but it was not an easy one. Maria Comnena had been only thirteen when she was wed to the King of Jerusalem, a man almost twenty years older than she, a man who spoke not a word of her Greek while she spoke not a word of his native French. Even religion had not been a bond between them, for he followed the Latin Church of Rome and she had been raised in the Greek Orthodox faith. And she soon discovered that her husband's past was inextricably entwined with her present, for Amalric had two young children and a former wife, a woman very beautiful and very bitter.
Her new kingdom was not a welcoming one. Known as Outremer, French for "the land beyond the sea," it was a country cursed with pestilent fevers and the constant shadow of war. Nor were her husband's subjects enthusiastic about the marriage; she'd soon discovered that the Franks scorned Greeks as untrustworthy and effeminate and were suspicious of this new alliance with the Greek empire. It was, in every respect, an alien world to her, and she'd been desperately homesick, missing her family and the familiar splendor of Constantinople, which made Jerusalem and Acre and Tyre seem like paltry villages. Looking back now, Maria was embarrassed to remember how often she'd cried herself to sleep in those first weeks of her marriage.
But she was a Greek princess, great-niece to the Emperor Manuel Comnenus, and she was determined not to bring shame upon the Greek Royal House. She set about learning French. She spent hours memorizing the names of the bishops and barons of Outremer. She hid her shock at the sight of clean-shaven lords; beards were a cherished symbol of masculinity in her old life. She adopted the Frankish fashions, wearing her hair in two long braids and not always veiling her face when she ventured out in public, as highborn ladies of the Greek empire did.
And she did her best to please her new husband. Her mother had warned her that Amalric would not be the easiest of men to live with. He was courageous, strong-willed, and intelligent, and men believed him to be a good king. He inspired respect, not affection, for there was a coldness about him that kept others at arm's length. He was reserved and often aloof, a man of few words who was sensitive about his slight stammer. But Maria had not expected to find love in marriage, or even companionship, asking only that her husband show her the honor due her rank. She'd learned at an early age that theirs was a world in which men set the rules and women had to play by them-even queens.
In her infrequent letters back home, she'd assured her parents that Amalric treated her well, and that was not a lie. While he was unfaithful, he did not flaunt his concubines at court. He'd not consummated their marriage until she was fourteen, and at first, she'd been worried that he found her unattractive, for Greek brides of twelve were deemed old enough to share their husbands' beds. But it seemed that was not the custom among the Franks, who believed pregnancies to be dangerous for half-grown girls. When Amalric did claim his marital rights, Maria did not enjoy it and she sensed he did not enjoy it much, either, merely doing his duty to get her with child. He'd not reproached her, though, for failing to get pregnant straightaway and she'd been grateful for that. In public, he was unfailingly courteous, in private, preoccupied and distant. They never quarreled, rarely spoke at all. The truth was that even after more than four years of marriage, they were still two strangers who sometimes shared a bed.
Easter was the most sacred of holy days for both the Latin and the Greek Orthodox Churches. It was also a social occasion and Amalric's lords and their ladies had already begun to arrive in Jerusalem, not wanting to miss the lavish festivities of the king's Easter court. For Maria, these royal revelries were a mixed blessing. She enjoyed the feasting and entertainment, but not the inevitable appearances of Amalric's onetime wife.
She'd not expected that Agnes de Courtenay would continue to play a role in their lives. Fairly or not, scandal attached itself to a repudiated wife and she'd assumed that Agnes must have withdrawn to a nunnery as such women usually did. Instead, Agnes had promptly remarried, taking as her new husband Hugh d'Ibelin, who'd once been her betrothed, and as Hugh's wife, she had to be made welcome at court, however little Amalric or Maria liked it. When Hugh died unexpectedly on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela three years ago, Maria had na•vely hoped that Agnes would retreat into the sequestered shadow world of widowhood. To the contrary, she'd soon found another highborn husband, the Lord of Sidon, and continued to haunt the royal court with her prickly presence, reminding one and all without saying a word of her checkered history with Maria's husband.
As always, there was a stir as Agnes entered the great hall, heads turning in her direction. She paused dramatically in the doorway-to make sure that she was the center of attention, Maria thought sourly. Amalric avoided Agnes whenever he could and he'd put in a perfunctory appearance earlier, then disappeared. In his absence, Maria knew she'd be the other woman's quarry, and she was not surprised when Agnes began to move in her direction, as nonchalantly as a lioness stalking a herd of grazing deer. At first, she'd wondered why Agnes hated her so much, finally realizing it was because she had what Agnes so desperately wanted-not the gold band on her finger, but the jeweled crown that had been placed upon Maria's head on the day of her coronation.
She watched Agnes approach. Maria was not yet eighteen and Agnes must be nigh on twenty years older, her youth long gone, but Maria knew she would never be the beauty that Agnes once was. Agnes could make her feel awkward and inadequate merely by arching a delicately plucked brow. No matter how often Maria had reminded herself that she was the Queen of Jerusalem, she'd been acutely uncomfortable in the older woman's presence, tensing whenever that cool sapphire-blue gaze took her measure, knowing she'd been judged and found wanting.
But she was no longer intimidated by this worldly, elegant enemy. Turning to one of her attendants, she said, "Let me hold her," and as soon as the baby was lifted from her cradle and placed in her arms, she felt it again-a surge of such happiness that it was as if God Himself were smiling over her shoulder, sharing her joy. When the midwife had declared that she'd birthed a girl, she'd felt a stab of guilt, fearing that she'd failed Amalric by not giving him a son. Yet once she held her daughter for the first time, all else was forgotten. She'd not known she was capable of a love so intense, so overwhelming; she spent hours watching the baby sleep, listening to her breathing, marveling at the softness of her skin, the silky feel of her hair. That past week, Isabella had smiled for the first time and Maria did not doubt that this was a memory she'd cherish till the end of her days. Why had no one told her that motherhood was so life changing?
But it was only after Isabella's birth that she fully comprehended how much Agnes de Courtenay had taken from her. When Amalric told her that his two children with Agnes would come before any child of hers in the line of succession, it had seemed a remote concern to a thirteen-year-old girl with more immediate worries of her own. Now, though, as she looked down lovingly into the small, petal face upturned to hers, she felt a resentful rage that her beautiful daughter would never be a queen, cheated of her rightful destiny because Amalric had been foolish enough to wed that hateful, unworthy woman.
Agnes's curtsy was so grudgingly given that those watching smothered smiles and edged closer; interactions between the two women were morbidly entertaining to many. Their exchange of greetings was edged in ice, followed by silence as Maria waited for the customary congratulations due a new mother. When she saw it was not coming, she made an effort at courtesy, acutely aware of their audience. "Your lord husband is not with you?"
"Oh, he is around somewhere," Agnes said with a graceful wave of her hand. "I see your husband is missing, too. Mayhap we should send out lymer hounds to track them down."
Isabella began to squirm then, and Maria lowered her head to brush a kiss against that smooth little cheek. To some, it might have been a touching tableau of young motherhood; to Agnes, it was an intolerable reminder of all she'd lost-her crown and her children.
"I'd heard that you gave birth to a daughter. I hope you and Amalric were not too disappointed?"
Maria's head came up sharply. "I am young. God willing, we will be blessed with many sons in the years to come."
Agnes's smile faded. "May I see her?" she asked, poisonously polite, and before Maria could respond, she leaned over to study the child.
"Oh, my," she murmured, sounding surprised. "She does not look at all like Amalric, does she? Dark as a Saracen, she is." Her smile came back then, for as soon as she saw Maria's face, she knew she'd drawn blood. "But a sweet child, I am sure," she added dismissively, and turned away, sure that she'd gotten the last word.
Hours later, Maria was still seething. The words, innocuous in themselves, had been infused with such venom that they'd left her speechless, and thank God Almighty for that; if not, she might have caused a scene that the court would be talking about for years to come. It was not even the malicious insinuation about Isabella's paternity that had so enraged her, for that was too outrageous to be taken seriously. It was that Agnes saw Isabella-saw her daughter-as a legitimate target in this ugly vendetta of hers. She would come to regret it, to regret it dearly. Maria swore a silent, holy vow to make it so, but even that did not assuage her fury. She needed to give voice to her wrath, needed a sympathetic audience.
Amalric would not want to be dragged into what he'd see as a female feud; he preferred to deal with Agnes by ignoring her. And friendship was a luxury denied to those in power. Maria had been taught that the highborn dared not let down their guard. Servants could be bribed or threatened, handmaidens suborned, and spies were everywhere. But she was luckier than most queens, for she did have a friend, one whom she trusted implicitly.
It was language that had brought them together initially, for Master William was a linguist, fluent in four languages, one of which was Greek. Maria had been thankful to be able to converse with someone in her native tongue, and she'd been grateful, too, that William approved of her marriage, believing an alliance with the Greek empire to be in the best interests of his kingdom. He'd engaged a tutor to teach her French and began to instruct her in the intricacies of Outremer politics. Having grown up at the highly political royal court in Constantinople, Maria was fascinated by statecraft and power. When she'd tried to discuss such matters with Amalric, she'd been politely rebuffed, but William found her to be an apt pupil; as their friendship deepened, Maria no longer felt so utterly alone.
Such a relationship would have been frowned upon in Constantinople, where women led more segregated lives, with few opportunities to mingle with men not of their family. But William was a man of God, now the Archdeacon of Tyre, and that helped to dampen any hint of scandal. So, too, did Amalric's approval. He admired William greatly, commissioning him to write histories of their kingdom and their Saracen foes. Two years ago, he'd even entrusted his son, Baldwin, into William's keeping, making him responsible for the young prince's education. He had no problems with his queen spending time with William, provided that they were chaperoned.
While William and Baldwin were often in the coastal city of Tyre, they were back for the king's Easter court, with quarters here in the palace. So, when her inner turmoil did not abate, Maria knew what she must do. Summoning two of her ladies and her chief eunuch, Michael, she announced that she was going to visit Master William.
William's lodgings showed how high he stood in the king's favor. Space was at a premium at court, even in the new royal palace, yet William been given two rooms. The antechamber was comfortably furnished with a table, desk, and chairs, for it was here that he did his writing and met with guests. Double doors opened onto a small balcony, and a closed door led to his bedchamber, which she knew would be austere and simple. Unlike many churchmen, William had no taste for luxury; whatever money he had, he spent on books. He was holding one in his hand now as he opened the door, his face breaking into a smile at the sight of Maria.
Even in her agitation, she'd not entirely forgotten her manners. "Forgive me for bursting in like this, Master William, but I had such a need to talk with you. Agnes de Courtenay is surely the greatest bitch in all of Christendom! You'll not believe what that woman dared to say about my daughter. She-"
She got no further, for it was only then that she saw the shadow cast by the man standing on the balcony. She clapped her hand to her mouth, dismayed that she'd uttered such intemperate words for a stranger to hear. But worse was to come. As he moved into the chamber, she gave a horrified gasp, for she knew him. Balian d'Ibelin, the youngest of the Ibelin brothers, Agnes de Courtenay's former brother-in-law.
For a moment, they stared at each other. She shuddered at the thought of him repeating what he'd overheard. How Agnes would laugh to learn how hurtful her words had been. Dare she ask him to keep silent? But why would he? "I . . . I fear I have been indiscreet. . . ."
"My lady queen," he said with flawless courtesy and reached for her hand, his lips barely grazing her clenched fingers. And then he smiled. "It is not indiscreet to speak the truth. I know Agnes well enough to assure you that if there are any in Outremer who do not think she is a bitch, they have not yet met her."