Flann peeked into the Duke's study.

Flann peeked into the Duke’s study. “Your Grace wished to see me?”

“And a splendid sight it is, too!” Alred rose from his table and stood with his arms outstretched in wonder at her beauty.

Flann laughed and closed the door behind her. “Were you wanting to speak with me as well?”

“Once I have recovered from the shock of so much loveliness.” He bowed his head to kiss her hand. “How are you, my dear? And how is your sister?”

'I'm as merry as a marriage bell.'

I’m as merry as a marriage bell,” she winked and curtseyed. “And Cat’s middling fair. She had some quiet, with everyone away for the funeral.”

Alred smiled sadly and sighed. “I would be happier to see her liking a little company. Please ask her, on my behalf, to come tonight. Tell her she needn’t, of course, but I want her to know I should like to see her. It will eventually trouble her if she isn’t invited among us, and she will wonder why.”

“Ach! I wonder why there aren’t more men like you. How do you come to know so much about us women?”

“No man spends as much time looking at women as I,” he smiled.

“If you had ever spent any time looking at men, you would know that isn’t true at all!”

Alred laid a gentle hand on her back to lead her to the couch. “Ah, but I am thinking about ladies’ feelings, and they are thinking about feeling ladies.”

'I am thinking about ladies' feelings.'

“‘Now, just come over here and sit down on my lap a moment!’” she laughed. “Oh, no!”

“I admit I’m a small man, but aren’t I little heavy for that? I thank you for asking, however.”

Flann fell back against the cushions and laughed aloud. “Oh, why, oh, why aren’t there more men like you?”

“There used to be, but I was the only one left standing after we fought to the death over the right to sit here with you.”

'There used to be.'

“Precious, precious man!” she sighed after her giggles had subsided.

“I’m glad you find me so, for I have a favor to ask you. A small sacrifice for you to make, in fact.”

“For you, I would gladly make a small sacrifice, especially since Advent time in your castle simply means no leaping while dancing and no candy before breakfast.”

“Hmm.” Alred rubbed his beard thoughtfully. “That was so easy I wish I had the time to think of something more agreeable to my own self. Herewithal I can only make the following request. I trust you have lately noticed a goodly number of chins being exposed to their first sunlight in twice and thrice ten years? To wit, the chin or chins of nearly every man on whom I have ever had the pleasure of playing a joke, from His Majesty the King on down to the blacksmith’s red-​​headed coal-​​bearer?”

'I trust you have lately noticed a goodly number of chins being exposed to their first sunlight.'

“I had noticed,” she said with a sober nod and a giggle.

“So!” Alred paused to give his nose a brisk rub. “Mind you, I like a joke better than anyone – but this is my daughter!”

“I believe the joke is on you, however,” Flann smiled.

“I know it is, but it is still my daughter who has to bear the brunt of it.”

'I know it is, but it is still my daughter who has to bear the brunt of it.'

Flann laughed. “I believe that your daughter is finding the brunt to be a pleasant burden.”

“That’s what Hetty says,” Alred sighed. “She thinks Gwynn is enjoying all the masculine attention. But, Jupiter! I’m her father! I can’t prevent her from enjoying it, but I can prevent her from getting it!”

“And that is why you need a sacrifice from me?” Flann blinked at him. “I don’t suppose you want me to kiss every man in the kingdom, from His Majesty the King on down to the red-​​headed blacksmith’s boy?”

'I don't suppose you want me to kiss every man in the kingdom?'

“In fact, it’s something like that,” Alred grinned sheepishly.

“You call that a sacrifice?”

He laughed. “I call that a lot of work! That is not what I wished to ask of you, however. I should like simply to make a second decree, forbidding any man without a beard from kissing you.

“Aie aie aie!” Flann winced. “You would make them choose!”

“Clever, isn’t it?” he chuckled and rubbed his hands together.

'Clever, isn't it?'

“What makes you think they will choose me?”

“My dear, any man old enough to grow a beard who would prefer to kiss a twelve-​​year-​​old girl instead of an eighteen-​​year-​​old you–and forgive me for having noticed your charms – is the sort of man I don’t want in my castle, and this experiment will have the further benefit of permitting me to identify such creatures.”

“Where is the sacrifice then?”

'Where is the sacrifice then?'

“Ah! But a man cannot grow a beard in an afternoon. You see, I have been to see the King this morning, and I noticed in particular a pair of stewards and a certain captain of the guard who had already made ready for tonight’s party by laying their chins bare.”

“Oh, no! Not those three!” Flann laughed.

'Not those three!'

“Those three in particular. But there are a good many more. I’m afraid you will be a lonely young lady tonight if I set forth this decree, and it is for this reason that I call it a sacrifice.”

“But you haven’t shaved off your beard.”

Alred clapped his hand against his bearded chin. “By Jupiter! You’re right! Precious, precious girl!”

'Precious, precious girl!'