King Sigefrith snorted and yanked his hand away from his face.

King Sigefrith snorted and yanked his hand away from his face.

Then the door opened, and he saw to whom belonged the footsteps that had startled him.

He saw to whom belonged the footsteps that had startled him.

“Damn, runt! If I had known it was only you, I wouldn’t have bothered to stop picking my nose.”

You don’t pick your nose!” Cedric laughed as he briefly kneeled and bounced up again. “You’re a king!”

“Don’t I?” Sigefrith asked. “Well, in that case you won’t mind if I wipe my finger on your hair just now…”

'Well, in that case you won't mind if I wipe my finger on your hair just now...'

Cedric shrieked and squirmed away.

“Joking! Joking!” Sigefrith laughed. “I mean to save that one for dessert later anyway.”

'I mean to save that one for dessert later anyway.'

Cedric pretended to gag.

Sigefrith sat on the couch and laughed again. “I can’t believe you find the idea shocking, living with your father as you do. I learned all my dessert recipes from him.”

'I learned all my dessert recipes from him.'

“He doesn’t eat them!”

“I don’t know what he does with them nowadays, in that case. When I was your age, I used to find them in my hair.”

“Never!” Cedric laughed.

“You ask him and see, runt. You can tell all your friends: ‘When my father was a boy, he used to anoint the King with his own snot.’ See whether they can top that.

“I wager they can’t! But I think now he simply flicks them into the fire.”

“Now that is what I call ‘an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the Lord’!” Sigefrith laughed.

“You are both so disgusting!” Cedric grinned.

'You are both so disgusting!'

“I know! And I shall ask Lady Eadgith to seat you between the two of us at dinner, and we shall make you so ill with our carryings-​​on that you shan’t eat a bite.”

“All right!” Cedric said eagerly.

Sigefrith smiled at the boy, who himself had a catlike neatness he had inherited from his mother, but who so adored his father and the King that he would consider being subjected to their juvenility rather a great honor.

Every time he saw him, Sigefrith wished he could take Cedric home with him.

Every time he saw him, Sigefrith wished he could take Cedric home with him. The boy seemed to result from the refinement of Leofric’s coarse majesty through the sieve of Leila’s graciousness. As much as he loved and respected young Sigefrith, he suspected that Cedric would prove to be Leofric’s finest son.

Sigefrith would have liked to have had the boy to raise and to train into one of his own knights, for Cedric would surely be one of the best of his generation. But there was also, he admitted, a hole in his life precisely the size of a ten-​​year-​​old boy.

“Are you coming home with us, runt?” Sigefrith asked him. “We have a new boy coming to stay with us, who is just turning seven. The perfect age for following ten-​​year-​​old boys around in annoying admiration.”

'Are you coming home with us, runt?'

“Who? Fenric?”

“That’s the one. You had better get your licks in on him now, for he’ll be towering over you by the time he’s ten.”

“Then I had better not!” Cedric laughed.

“On second thought, that’s good thinking, runt.”

“Besides, my father says I shouldn’t pick on boys who are littler than I.”

Besides, my father says I shouldn't pick on boys who are littler than I.

“What?” Sigefrith gasped. “Damn him! For the first seventeen years of my life I was picked on by a bigger boy than I, to wit, your father.”

Cedric giggled.

“For that matter, I believe the difference in our ages is the same as the difference between yours and that of the young fire-​​breathing reptile I have inflicted on your family for the last few weeks. I hope you’ve been picking on him plenty.”

“When he’s being annoying. As I’m certain you were,” Cedric laughed.

“Damn! When do you ever sleep? I wish I could take you home with me to keep that boy in line.”

“You could leave him here.”

“Could I? Hmm… But how do you propose I separate him from his mother?”

'But how do you propose I separate him from his mother?'

“You could leave Eadie here too.”

“Oh, could I?” Sigefrith laughed.

“I wish you could. It’s so much nicer here when Eadie’s here.”

“It is? You ought to tell her so. That’s a handsome compliment.”

“I shall.”

“What makes it so nice?” Sigefrith smiled.

“I don’t know. Because my father always allows me to go visit my mother if Eadie asks him. And because, when she’s here, my father and Lady Eadgith don’t fight so much. Or, if they do, Eadie knows what to say to make them stop and love each other again. Or if Raegan and Liss fight, or the twins, or if anyone gets hurt, she always knows what to say to make everyone feel better.”

'She always knows what to say to make everyone feel better.'

Sigefrith thought himself fortunate that he had already been smiling at the beginning of the speech. Thus he had only to concentrate on the muscles of his mouth to keep that smile in place.

It was good to know that Eadgith was feeling well enough to have taken up her old roles of peacemaker between quarrelsome parents and comforter of troubled siblings. He simply could not understand why he seemed to be the only earthly creature exempt from her loving-​​kindness.

He simply could not understand why he seemed to be the only earthly creature exempt from her loving-kindness.

Even in their bed, even when he was closest to her, he had the impression that she was not there at all – or perhaps that she was standing far from him, with her face turned away. He had not realized until that moment that he had been dreading taking her home with him again.

“Oh, I thought of something else!” Cedric giggled wickedly. “Whenever I’m bad, Eadie always knows how to tell my father so that he laughs instead of getting angry!”

“Damn! I wish I had had Eadie around when I was your age, in that case. Your father only ever began to laugh when he got to whipping me.”

'Your father only ever began to laugh when he got to whipping me.'

“But he wasn’t an old man then! He shouldn’t have wanted to whip you, if he was a boy, too.”

“Don’t forget that when I was your age, your father was seventeen or so. And there is nothing bad a ten-​​year-​​old boy can do that a seventeen-​​year-​​old will not find contemptible for its utter foolishness. When I was jumping on the furniture, your father only ever wanted to jump on pretty girls.”

Cedric laughed. “I like you better!”

“On the other hand,” Sigefrith said, “I still want to jump on the furniture, and he still wants to jump on the pretty girls, so perhaps it was only ever a difference in our personalities.”

“You do not!” Cedric cried.

'You do not!'

“Don’t I? Listen here, runt. Who are you to be telling a king what he does and does not do?”

“I do not believe you jump on the furniture.”

“You didn’t believe I picked my nose, either.”

“Do it, then! I dare you!”

“You dare me, eh? That’s serious business, runt. If you dare me, and I do it, that means you must do it too.”

'That's serious business, runt.'

“I shall! But you first.”

Sigefrith looked left and looked right. “No one’s coming?” he whispered.

“The ladies are dressing for dinner. And my father isn’t back yet.”

“If I get into trouble for this,” Sigefrith said as he pulled his feet up to stand on the couch, “I’m telling Lady Eadgith it was your idea.”

'All right.'

“All right,” Cedric giggled, “but anyway my father will laugh for certain if you do it too.”

Sigefrith tentatively bounced a few times on the tightly stuffed cushions. “How’s that?” he whispered.

“That’s not how!” Cedric sighed and clambered up beside him. “Both feet must go in the air, like this!” he demonstrated.

'Both feet must go in the air, like this!'

Sigefrith laughed and leapt a little higher.

He had some idea that thirteen stone of solid man was a bit much to be bouncing at one end of Lady Eadgith’s couch, but there was an undeniable pleasure in behaving like a ten-​​year-​​old, especially when accompanied by an actual ten-​​year-​​old.

Caedwulf had passed the age for this sort of misbehavior, and Drage still had seven years to grow before he reached this point. Nearly eleven years separated his two sons, and that was a long desert to cross without an oasis of juvenility such as Cedric in the middle. Or such as Cubby.


“Sigefrith!” his wife cried from behind them, horrified.

“Uh oh, runt!” Sigefrith laughed uneasily as he hopped down to the floor. “We need a second Eadie to explain to Eadie so that she laughs instead of getting angry.”

“Sigefrith! What were you doing?” she cried.

“He wanted to prove to me that he still jumped on the furniture!” Cedric laughed, still giddy from the exploit.

“That runt dared me!” Sigefrith protested. “It was a question of honor, honey.”

He grabbed her and attempted to kiss her, but she was more interested in scolding than in being kissed, and she would not be distracted.

He grabbed her and attempted to kiss her.

She turned her face aside, so he could only kiss her cheek as she wailed, “Oh, Sigefrith! On my mother’s furniture! And in your boots!”

“I know!” Cedric giggled. “And he’s a king, too!”


“And he picks his nose, too!” Cedric added.

“Runt, you’re not helping!” Sigefrith sighed.


“Oh, Sigefrith!” she moaned. “What an example you set for Cedric! And if my mother had – ”

Though he was a grown man and might be expected to act his age, nevertheless Sigefrith found it a little unfair that he should be so thoroughly scolded while Drage’s misdeeds seldom earned more than a shame-​​faced giggle from his indulgent mother.

Sigefrith finally turned her face around himself and kissed her to make her be silent.

Sigefrith kissed her to make her be silent.