Lady Margaret ran into the dining hall with a filly's heedless grace.

Lady Margaret ran into the dining hall with a filly’s heedless grace.

“Conrad!” Her softly-​pitched cry seemed intended as a shout that would nevertheless not be heard in the next room. “There you are!”

“What are you doing here already, kid? Is your brother here?”

'What are you doing here already, kid?'

“Yes, but I was looking for you, and you must speak with me first because I am a lady.”

“Oh, is that so? And I suppose I must kiss your hand and tell you there is no service I would not be delighted to do you?”

“Yes, because I am a duke’s daughter, and you are only the scum floating in a half-​empty barrel of rainwater.”

Conrad laughed and bowed. “Delighted.”


“So, come with me. I need your help.”

“Come where to help you with what?”

“Come up to my bedroom with me. Come on!” Margaret grabbed his arm and attempted to drag him towards the stairs.

“Oh no!” Conrad laughed. “Not that! Or at least wait until your brother leaves.”

“Not for that, you mongrel!” Margaret smacked the back of his head. “I only need you to help me move something.”

“Do I look like a man-​servant to you, kid?”

'Do I look like a man-servant to you, kid?'

“You look like a big, lumbering, cross-​eyed bull-​calf, and that’s approximately what I need. And anyway, I am asking you because it is a secret, and because it’s your house. Come on!”

Conrad went.

“There!” she cried once they had climbed the tower and closed her door behind them.


Conrad saw nothing but the customary complement of bedroom furniture. “Where?”

“I need you to move that chest for me.”

The chest in question was a massive oaken edifice, and Conrad did not care to attempt to move it and risk coming up lacking in strength before a duke’s daughter. Nor could he understand why she needed it moved, as it stood on legs sufficiently tall that nothing dropped beneath it could be out of reach.

The chest in question was a massive oaken edifice.

“Why the hell?” he asked.

Margaret threw her arms around his neck from behind and hung her weight from them, dragging him to the ground with an alarming thump.

She immediately scrambled off of him and squealed, “Look!”

Conrad brushed himself off, bewildered. Long acquaintance with his demure stepsisters had not prepared him for the possibility of girls that knew how to wrestle.

“Look at what?” he mumbled.

“Isn’t that a door behind there?”

'Isn't that a door behind there?'

“Nom de Dieu!” he sighed. “Is that what this was about? You want me to move this chest so you can get through that door?”

“Yes! What’s back there? No!” she gasped. “Don’t tell me. I want to be surprised.”

“You’ll be nothing but disappointed, kid. That’s just a storeroom back there, under the roof.”

“What’s in it?”

He laughed. “Skeletons and treasure chests! What do you think? This house isn’t even three years old.”

“Well… but the room must be a secret, even if there aren’t any secrets in it yet.”

Conrad rolled his eyes and shook his head.

Conrad rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Must I?”

“Yes, because a lady asked you. And you boys like to show off how strong you are, so get cracking.”

Conrad had not entered this storeroom since shortly after the house had been built, and the tall chest had stood before the door for some time already. Of course he knew approximately what he would find inside, but Lady Margaret’s enthusiasm had awoken his own boy’s natural instinct for exploring—as well as his young man’s natural instinct for showing off his strength, as Margaret had shrewdly realized.

Margaret had shrewdly realized.

Fortunately the door opened outward, so he had only to pivot the chest far enough on its legs for them to squeeze between it and the wall.

The room lay beneath the slope of the roof, and even they could scarcely stand at the highest point. Margaret, therefore, promptly sat, so Conrad sat with her.

“Disappointed?” he asked smugly.


“No! I wish I had such a nice secret room by my bedchamber at home.”

“Nice?” Conrad laughed and looked up at the slatted roof, through which, here and there, came rays of afternoon sunlight as well as drafts of February cold.

“Use your imagination! It could be anything if you feel like playing. A pirate base… or a pirate ship! Or a prison, or anything. And if you don’t feel like playing, then it’s a perfect place to come to hide from your kid brother, and to read or talk to your friends, or anything.”

'It's a perfect place to come to hide from your kid brother.'

She grinned at him, pretty as a foal with her rumpled forelock hanging before her face, bright-​eyed and eager as her prissy sister had forgotten how to be.

He shook his head. “You’re a funny kid. A funny girl, I should say. Wanting to hang out in a cold and dusty room to play pirate base.”

“I know! But I don’t care. What’s over there?” She pointed off behind his shoulder.

“Over where?”

'Over where?'

“Through that tunnel over there.”

There was a small gap between the slope of the roof and the front of one of the gables, though he would not have thought to call it a tunnel.

“That’s only the roof,” he laughed.

“What’s through there?”

“You can’t get through there, stupid. Nothing’s over there.”

She scrambled up and nearly crawled over him to get to her “tunnel”.

'This house is far longer than this little room.'

“This house is far longer than this little room,” she scoffed. “There must be something.”

“You can’t get through there.” He laughed weakly, seeing that she intended to try.

“I certainly can!” she cried. “Come see! I wager there’s another room over here. A secret secret room!”

'Come see!'

“My lady! Be careful…”

“Come on!” she laughed. “Or are you afraid you’re so fat you’ll get stuck?”

“I am not fat! I am simply broad-​shouldered.”

“Fat fat fatty!” she chanted. “You can’t catch me.”

Her feet still protruded, so he grabbed a slender ankle. “Can so.”

She shook her leg, trying to free herself.

“Ow!” She shook her leg, trying to free herself. “Come on, if you’re not fat.”

“What if my shoulders get stuck half-​way? Then I shall be in trouble, and I am certain you will only laugh at me,” he pretended to pout.

“I shall certainly laugh, but I shall be in trouble too, since I shall be stuck on the other side with your bloated body blocking my escape.” She gave a furious kick that knocked his hand away, and the last of her wriggled through the narrow space. “So come on!”

“Well, if you put it that way,” he laughed and crawled after her.

There was a second secret room, as she had guessed, this one much longer than the first. This contained only a pile of mouse-​eaten sacks and rather more dust and drifts of powdery snow than the first. Margaret was clearly delighted.

There was a second secret room.

“This is the best sort of secret room of all,” she said. “Even if the adults know of it, they can’t come into it. You can hide here if your house is ever attacked.”

“I think not!” Conrad scoffed. “If we are ever attacked, we shall retreat to the tower and defend ourselves.”

“Wouldn’t that be fun?” she sighed dreamily.

'Wouldn't that be fun?'

“Not necessarily!”

“Not for real,” she said. “But to pretend?”

“I think I am a little old for ‘pretend’, kid.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” she pouted. “You’re a boy. When you’re a man, you may do what you like. You could be a knight or a pirate or a rogue or anything. But I’m a girl, so my only two choices are a wife and mother like everybody, or else a bad girl and mother like Girl-​Flann.”

'You know about that?'

“You know about that?”

Margaret rolled her eyes.

“You could be a nun, too,” he suggested.

Her entire body swayed as if swung around by the weight of the eyes she rolled still more wildly.

Her entire body swayed.

“On second thought,” he said with a slowly growing smile, “no, you couldn’t.”

“So I shall play pretend all my life,” she concluded, “and then I won’t mind if my life is boring.”

“Your husband will think you daft.”

“I don’t care. Men think women are daft anyway.”

“Oh, listen to the little squab,” he hooted. “A lot you know about men and women. How old are you, kid?”

'How old are you, kid?'

“Twelve,” she said quickly.


“I am so!”

“Liar! I shall be thirteen in only a few weeks, and your sister is a few months younger than I, so she is twelve. That means you are eleven. Or not even! Because Leila says your birthday is right after mine, and you certainly aren’t turning twelve. You are ten, little mistress.”

Almost eleven, which is almost twelve. And if you knew that,” she challenged, “why did you even ask me?”

'Why did you even ask me?'

“Because I knew you would lie about your age. Just like any girl.”

“Oh, a lot you know about girls!” she mocked.

“More than you would guess, kid.”

“Ha! I wager you never even kissed a girl yet.”

“Haven’t I? What will you wager?”

“You never once kissed my sister at Christmas time.”

“What does that prove? Because I didn’t kiss one girl, I never kissed any? What will you wager?”

'What will you wager?'

“I… I don’t know. How would you prove it?” She squinted her face up into a hard-​eyed look of defiance.

“I shall kiss you,” he grinned, “and you will decide whether I know what I’m doing.”

“How would I—” She gasped and stared at him open-​mouthed.

He laughed. “Unless you have never kissed a boy before, in which case you wouldn’t know.”

“Of course I have!”

'Of course I have!'


“I have so!”

“Your brother doesn’t count, kid.” He laughed and pointed her out to an invisible witness. “She’s either a twelve-​year-​old who kisses boys, or a ten-​year-​old liar!”

'She's either a twelve-year-old who kisses boys, or a ten-year-old liar!'

“Well, if you know so much about kissing girls, I shall kiss you and you shall decide whether I know what I’m doing!”

Conrad’s laugh foundered. Close acquaintance with his demure sisters had not prepared him for a girl who would kiss a boy to win a wager.

Having already himself been the target of her father’s watchful eye, he would indeed be willing to wager that Lady Margaret had never kissed a boy. But the boldness of her stare was such that he did not think he would wager much.

Her slow grin proved she could detect his hesitation.

Her slow grin proved she could detect his hesitation. “Come on!” She leapt to her feet.

“Nom de Dieu!”

At the thought of the three weeks ahead of him, Conrad’s qualmy stomach seemed borne up by a rising flood of apprehension. Lady Margaret’s “Come on!” was like a sudden tide catching one unawares and sweeping one away.

She grabbed his hand and tugged on it till he rose, so rapidly that he cracked his head on the roof.

“Aie!” He flung himself towards the wall where the roof was highest. “Do you see what you made me do?”

'Do you see what you made me do?'

Her laugh was a nervous whinny.

“Listen, kid…” He rubbed his bumped head awkwardly. “You don’t have to do this. I believe you.”

“Are you afraid?” she asked, peering wickedly at him out of the one eye that was not hidden by her dark mane of wild hair.

'Are you afraid?'

“Not of you!”

“Of losing?


“If you won’t do it, I win by default.”

“I don’t care! I told you, I already believe you.”

“But I do not believe you. However, if that does not trouble you…” She turned her head and sniffed disdainfully, looking briefly like a tousled version of her simpering sister.

His eyebrows came together in a frown of annoyance. He much preferred the wild and heedless girl who would kiss a boy not because she dreamt of kissing boys—for she dreamt of being a pirate or a rogue—but to win a wager.

“As if the opinion of a ten-​year-​old liar could trouble me!” he taunted.

'As if the opinion of a ten-year-old liar could trouble me!'

“I am not a liar!”

“Prove it!”

She planted her hands on his shoulders, reared back her head, and took a deep breath.

Conrad panicked. He had kissed girls before, but they had always at least pretended to try to squirm away. He was not certain he knew how to kiss a girl who was determined to kiss him back.

She reared back her head and took a deep breath.

But Margaret did not intend to kiss anybody back. She stood suddenly on her toes and kissed him; and if she was lacking in experience, she made up for it in boldness. What Conrad did in return could only be described as kissing her back—at best.

Afterwards she laughed again, another high-​pitched whinny. “That wasn’t too bad,” she smirked.

He was not bold enough to accuse her of lying. Even as skittish as she now appeared, there had been enough self-​assurance in her kiss to make him doubt himself. “Well, I suppose I could say the same.”

“So who won?” she gasped.

“I don’t know…”

She tossed her head and laughed. “We both won! Or lost! Take your pick!”

Conrad shook his head in grudging admiration. “You’re one peculiar kid.”

'You're one peculiar kid.'