'Son of a serpent!'

“Son of a serpent! Is that a baby or a chin with diapers?”

“My son, the chin,” Godefroy chuckled.

“I didn’t think they were born that way.”

“Odile was.”

“I shall not be making light of the chins of ladies,” Leofric said gravely.

“You always make fun of mine!” Leia cried.

'You always make fun of mine!'

“That’s because your chin is so small and pointy you could peck a man’s eyes out with it.”

“You see?” she wailed and pounded on his hip with her fists, which bothered him no more than it ever did.

“Whereas this runt will be breaking stones with that chin by the time he’s four, if I’m not mistaken. If he can lift it off the ground, that is.”

Godefroy laughed. “I shall tell Leila everything you said about her perfect baby, you know.”

'I shall tell Leila everything you said about her perfect baby, you know.'

“She’s had hard luck with the chins, poor girl,” Leofric sighed. “We don’t have chins at all in my family, and in yours you have nothing else.”

“We do so have chins!” Leia protested. “What do you grow your beard on, if you don’t have a chin?”

“Those are Papa’s nose hairs, my pigeon. I simply comb them down around my mouth.”

Leia contrived to groan and laugh and squeal, “Hetty!” all at the same time.

Leofric was startled out of his grin.

Leofric was startled out of his grin.

He had heard footsteps creaking down the stairs, but he had thought it would be one of his children come to greet him, or perhaps the new mother herself. If he had known Alred’s wife was here, he might have waited a few more days before paying his respects to little Philippe.




Leia groaned, “I missed you!” and squirmed in ecstasy in Hetty’s arms. Leofric knew she probably had not thought of Hetty in days, but this was how she met anyone she liked very well.

“I missed you, too,” Hetty said. “Half of your brothers and sisters are here, but no Leias could be found.”

“And the other half live with you and you see them all the time and I never see you and it’s not fair!

“Would you have everyone live with everyone?” Leofric asked her. He laughed, hoping to stave off the coming tantrum.

'Would you have everyone live with everyone?'

“Oh, yes!” she cried. “That would be so funny! We would need a biiiiig castle!” She was no longer angry, but she immediately demanded, “Hetty! Come play with me!”

“I have not even greeted your father yet, Leia,” Hetty said.

“He doesn’t care! Come on!”

Leofric was beginning to panic. “I most certainly do care,” he said.

He was in such a hurry to head off Leia that he did not remember until it was too late how dirty his hands must have been from gripping reins for the last hour.

He did not remember until it was too late.

He would never know whether Hetty had noticed it. She would never have acknowledged it. But he did not know why he had noticed it himself – he was not ordinarily a tidy man.

“How are you, my dear?” he asked. “Wrap yourself up in a scroll and send yourself out here by messenger, did you? A sort of scholarly Cleopatra?”

Hetty’s frequent correspondence with Leila was known to all, and both of the well-​​educated ladies were often teased about the “recipes” and “gossip” they supposedly exchanged.

“Oh, no!” she giggled. “Stein accompanied me on horseback.”

“That must have been a radiant procession.” Leofric permitted himself to kiss her hand; he had not been holding the reins between his teeth, at least. “Silver-​​White and Lily-​​White riding side by side.”

'And I on my silver-white horse!'

“And I on my silver-​​white horse!” She laughed deep in her throat, as if it had been wicked of her.

“No one will ever know who rode past them that day,” he said. “They were all shielding their eyes against the glare.”

“They will think an angel passed them.”

“They will be right.”

“I shall tell Stein you think him one,” she said with that wicked laugh again.

'I shall tell Stein you think him one.'

“Stein already knows what I think of him,” Leofric winked. “I was thinking of you.

“Papa! Hurry up!” Leia growled.

“Leia! It takes time to greet a lady properly.”

But this was not just any lady – this was Alred’s wife, and he had been holding her hand for far too long already.

As soon as he dropped it, Leia snatched it up again. “Now let’s go play!”

'Now let's go play!'

“Leia…” he said ominously.

“But – Leia – ” Hetty said anxiously.

Leofric realized that Hetty did not often encounter such forward little girls, and he was, exceptionally, embarrassed by her behavior.

“Leia!” he barked. “At least act like a lady!”

She dropped Hetty’s hand and turned to him, defiantly angry at this betrayal.

“Leia, dear,” Hetty said soothingly, “I shall certainly like to play with you later. But first, I have been wanting to speak with your Papa for some time.”

Leofric was again startled. Alred’s wife – wanting to speak to him?

'May I?'

“May I?” she asked him meekly. Her lily-​​white cheeks were beginning to turn quite rosy.

“I am at your command.”

Somehow Godefroy wheedled Leia away with promises of Conrad, who had the allure of not being one of Leia’s own tedious brothers or sisters. Somehow Leofric found himself sitting on the couch with Hetty. Somehow Leofric had come to be alone with Alred’s wife, as he had not been for many years – since before this pale lady had ever met Alred.

Hetty seemed to have summoned up all her butterfly's courage.

Hetty seemed to have summoned up all her butterfly’s courage, which made him fear she would be needing it.

Indeed, she began by saying, “I wish to start by apologizing to you for what I am about to say. I fear you may not stay long enough to hear it if I save it for last.”

'I wish to start by apologizing to you for what I am about to say.'

“There is little you could say that would shock an old… man such as I.”

He found he could not even call himself an “old sinner” before this young lady. Before this young lady he found his hands remarkably dirty and – what was more unusual – rather sweaty as well.

“I think it is a very shocking thing to ask you, and I am very ashamed of myself for thinking it, Leofric.” She spoke more slowly than ever, and it seemed more than an attempt to pronounce her consonants clearly. “However, you know how we women can be. Once we get a silly idea into our silly heads, we have no peace of mind until we tell someone about it.”

He smiled indulgently.

He smiled indulgently. “I am certain neither your idea nor your head is silly, my dear. Nor shocking, either, but hurry and ask me so that we may laugh about it the sooner.”

“Very well. I shall simply ask it.”

'Very well.  I shall simply ask it.'

She took a deep breath. Her cheeks were pinker than he had ever seen them – pinker than he had ever imagined such pale cheeks could be. He was certain they would even have felt warm to the touch – not that he would dare touch such lily-​​soft cheeks with his dirty, sweaty hands.

“Leofric,” she said firmly, “are you the father of Flann’s baby?”

Leofric realized that he too had taken a deep breath while he waited, for now it spilled out of him in a gasp.

It spilled out of him in a gasp.

“Ach, du Himmel!” she wailed. She shook her hands frantically before her face and at last clapped them over her mouth, just in time to muffle her cry of, “I am so sorry!”


He chuckled dazedly, for now that he had seen that she could shock him, he was relieved it had been no worse. But he told himself he would have to speak calmly for her sake, as if he had the habit of being called that sort of scoundrel on a regular basis.

'No, I am most certainly not.'

“No, I am most certainly not. Did someone tell you that I was?”

“No, but… Ach, you will think me so dreadful to have thought it of you!” she moaned.

“Well, now…”

“But… because of… Cat,” she whispered.

'Because of Cat.'

Leofric sighed. “Ah, yes.”

“I thought that… if you… with Cat, then…”

Her cheeks were so red he thought they must have hurt. The backs of his fingers were probably clean…

But this was Alred’s wife! He was evidently losing his mind. And he was not yet fifty!

He was evidently losing his mind.

He dragged his sweaty palm down his sweaty face, which arranged matters for neither palm nor face.

“I see,” he said. “Well, Hetty, allow me to reassure you that, even had I wanted to, young Flann never looked twice at me.”

“She did not?” Hetty peeped. “But Cat…”

“Let me tell you a little secret, my dear,” he chuckled. “Ordinarily I don’t admit this to anyone, but for you I shall make an exception.”

'Ordinarily I don't admit this to anyone, but for you I shall make an exception.'

She leaned closer to him as he began to speak confidentially, far enough that lock after lock of her pale hair slipped forward over her shoulders, silky and silent as water over glass. She was close enough that he could smell the perfume of it. She must have washed her hair in water steeped with some sweet flower. A little closer, and he might guess which…

'There are some young ladies who do not find me attractive.'

“There are some young ladies,” he whispered, “who do not find me attractive.”

For a moment she seemed perplexed, as if the idea had never occurred to her before. Then she snorted and began to laugh wickedly.

Then she snorted and began to laugh wickedly.

But her wicked laughter was little more than a baby’s chortling. She knew so little of wickedness that she could sit mere inches away from it and smile up into its face – close enough that wickedness could smell her – almost close enough for wickedness to feel the heat of her breath on its cheeks.

Clearly he was losing his mind.

“Your secret is safe with me,” she said.

“I knew I could trust you.”

'I knew I could trust you.'

She laughed with him only a moment longer before she flung herself back against the cushions and sighed. “But if it is not you, then who can it be?”

“I tell you it is not I, and you are disappointed?” he teased.

“If it had been you, I am certain I could have made you do the right thing,” she said firmly.

'I am certain I could have made you do the right thing.'

“If I had not done so from the start, you would have had a harder time than you know, I’m afraid. A girl like Flann… the man is either the worst kind of scoundrel or dead.”

“I do not know which would be worse,” Hetty said miserably.

“Better for her if he’s dead,” Leofric said without hesitation. “Then she may at least pretend he loved her.”

“Ach, Leofric.” Her pretty mouth drooped into a frown. “That is so sad.”

That is wickedness, my dear.”

'That is wickedness, my dear.'

He did not know why he said it. They had not been discussing what wickedness was – it was only he who had been wondering at her vast innocence. It was certainly not for him to open her eyes for her.

And yet he would not forget that she had seemed surprised to learn that there were girls who did not find him attractive. If she had been surprised, it meant she did.

If she had been surprised, it meant she did.