For one dizzying moment, Theobald believed he had fallen asleep sitting up and that it was morning already. But the fire, unnecessary though it was at this season, still burned.

“Your sister has already retired,” he said. “And your father…”

'And your father...'

Where was Osfrey? It had been a quiet day, after all…

“My father is at Nothelm, my lord,” Eadwyn said slowly. “And so was I, until he came.” Then, whatever had been holding him back broke, and the words poured forth. “And I left at once – I had to tell you – I was afraid you would be sleeping already – I only stopped a moment to have a bite and change horses – ”

“Yes, yes, slow down, Eadwyn,” Theobald soothed. He was only slowly waking from the stupor of his daydream, and Eadwyn’s agitation seemed almost an aggression. “I’m awake now, so take your time.”

'I'm awake now, so take your time.'

He folded his hands together and braced himself for another, more desperate plea for his niece.

What he heard was quite the opposite. Eadwyn was practically begging him to reconsider any decision he might have made to allow him to marry Ana.

“But, Eadwyn,” Theobald interrupted. “It is a poor opinion you must hold of me if you think I can be so easily swayed.”

'I thought of that, my lord.'

“I thought of that, my lord, and I am sorry to accuse you of it. I wouldn’t have believed it, myself. But I wanted to be certain – if you did decide to grant me this great happiness – certain that it was not done merely to spite my father, or to prove him wrong. If it is not so, then I humbly beg your pardon.”

“This is very strange…” Theobald murmured to gain himself time. He was not as awake as he had claimed, and his thoughts trickled and purled like chilled oil.

'This is very strange...'

It was true that the vitriol Osfrey spouted whenever Eadwyn was mentioned had lately grown more caustic – so much so that Theobald had begun to wonder whether Osfrey had discovered that Eadwyn was not truly his son at all.

But this would be another explanation. Theobald could believe it of Osfrey, too. There had been times over the last few years – when Eada’s fretfulness had been most galling – that he had wondered how he had ever come to be married to her. There had been times when his pride in his own self-​​mastery had been the only thing preventing him from admitting that Osfrey had carefully cultivated an animosity between him and Sigefrith and then reaped its fruit by convincing him that marrying Eada would be a brilliant snub.

And yet…

'Why would your father tell you this?'

“But, Eadwyn… Why would your father tell you this? If this was his plan, as he said, wouldn’t it be more likely to succeed if you were unaware of it?”

“He must think so little of me that he believed I would find it very clever and congratulate him.”

“No…” Theobald bit his thumb and tried to think. “No. I believe your father too clever for that. He must have known you would come and tell me. He said I needed a ‘nudge’ after all.”

Eadwyn frowned.

Eadwyn frowned.

“Your father is so cunning that I believe we still haven’t touched bottom.” Theobald rubbed his hands briskly together. Now the thoughts were beginning to flow. “I think he knew you would come and tell me, and one would think I would be so impressed by your honor that I would be inclined to offer you Ana’s hand at once. But I think he knew I would figure that out, too.”

'I think he knew I would figure that out, too.'

“And then…?”

“And then I’m in a clever trap, Eadwyn. Now, if I want to snub your father, I must not allow you to marry my niece. And thereby foil his deepest-​​laid plan.”



“But it would take a hard-​​hearted man to refuse you your happiness merely to get back at your father, wouldn’t it?”

“But you had other reasons…”

“I know it. I had perfectly honorable reasons for refusing you. But as long as you or he are around to remind me, this one dishonorable reason would always have seemed the most important, because it is the only one that would have shamed me.”

'It is the only one that would have shamed me.'

Eadwyn gaped at him like a miserable, suffocating carp.

Theobald clapped his hands on his lap and sighed. He had made up his mind, and he would not make Eadwyn suffer any longer than was necessary. It was a relief to do what one secretly wanted to do after all. Osfrey had probably thought of that, too.

He said to Eadwyn, “I think you will want to thank your father for it one day, though, before he’s gone.”

'Thank him?'

“Thank him?” Eadwyn cried.

“I must let him win, Eadwyn. But he has just spent the last of his influence over me to buy you a wife.”

'He has just spent the last of his influence over me to buy you a wife.'