'I'm sorry about that.'

“I’m sorry about that,” Dunstan said. He was so quickly through the curtain and around the bed that she saw nothing.

She had promised herself that she would look, though no one had so instructed her, for she thought it her duty as a wife. Her husband must not think that she was ashamed of him or that she found him ugly to look upon.

Still, she wondered whether husbands and wives often went naked before one another as Dunstan was so nonchalantly doing. She wished she had asked Ana at least that much.

But he moved so quickly that she scarcely had a chance to look before he had yanked down the blankets and sat beside her.

Instinctively she sat up.

Instinctively she sat up, clutching the sheets to her breast. In that instant she had seen enough, and she was alarmed by the manifest impossibility of what they were about to do. And yet she knew that when building a battering ram, one did not ask whether it would fit the lock.

“Sorry,” he said. “I forget I must share these now.” He shook the edge of the blanket with one fist.

“I too,” she gasped.

“Let us get comfortable, at least.” He sat up on one elbow and pounded his pillow into shape.

“Oh! I – I didn’t know…” she babbled. “Did I choose the right side of the bed? I mean, not the wrong side?”

He dropped himself back onto the pillow and smiled strangely at her. “Yes.”


Only when he answered without hesitation did she realize she had asked a rather silly question. Was there truly a right and wrong side for men and women who had never before slept together? It seemed to her now that her father slept on the side where she currently lay.

Unless… unless Dunstan simply had the habit of sleeping with women and always slept on the same side. She shrank away from him. Whether or not she loved him, he was her husband, and she could not bear to think of him in the arms of other women – women more beautiful than she, and perhaps even more beloved. Women who knew how to please a man, as she did not.

She could not bear to think of him in the arms of other women.

His voice and face softened. “If you had chosen this side, I would have asked you to change. It is a bit of advice my father gave me once. If I lie on this side, and you come to lie against me, your head will lie over my heart. Do you see?”

“Oh…” She had done it again: she had thought the worst of him, and he had proven her wrong.

“It is something he always wanted to ask my mother. But he never dared, because he thought she would think him foolish.”

He slid himself up until he was leaning his shoulders against the headboard and his body was exposed as far as his waist.

“The more important advice he gave me that day was that one should never let fear of foolishness stand in the way of telling a woman that one is a fool for her. So I hope you will find me quite foolish over the years.”

He smiled foolishly at her, and she could not help but smile in return.

He smiled foolishly at her.

“Would you like to try?” He patted his chest, as one patted a cushion when one wanted a cat to come lie on the couch.

She did not see how she could refuse.

As he pulled her against him with one arm, he slid the sheets down as far as her hips with the opposite hand, somehow making it seem a helpful gesture. But instead of touching her body, he took her hand.

He pulled her against him with one arm.

This, however, prevented her from covering herself with it. Her hair was some shelter, but it still allowed much to be seen and more to be imagined. He was most definitely looking at her. She wished she had asked Ana how she might look to a man.

When he moved to kiss her, she gasped, “Dunstan! Do you remember… when we were children?”

'Do you remember... when we were children?'

He stopped and smiled at her. She knew he was waiting for her to recall some specific moment from their childhood, but she had not thought that far ahead. Her mind was stubbornly blank; she remembered only that they had been children once.

He had been small and shy, always hiding behind his hair, always mumbling when he spoke. One day he had started speaking clearly and begun pulling his hair back behind his head, though she did not remember when or why. One day he had become a man.

When she did not go on, he asked, “Do you remember how we used to play with our food when we dined together?” He lowered their hands until they both rested on her hip, but he did not let go of hers; one could not quite say that he was touching her body.

He lowered their hands.

“There was nothing better to do with it,” she giggled. “Remember that cook of your father’s?”

“And we used to build forts and launch attacks with missiles? That was the most fun I’ve ever had at table.”

She thought of the long table in the hall. “Don’t get any ideas,” she pretended to scold. “I think we sit rather far apart for that now.”

“Do you truly believe I shall let that stop me?”

Without thinking, she lifted her eyebrows like Lady Anna and simpered, “Dunstan, that would not be the thing.”

'Dunstan, that would not be the thing.'

Britamund was not ordinarily a mean-​​spirited girl, but she and her friends were ruthless in their private mockery of Lady Anna. For an instant she had felt such friendliness for Dunstan that she had made him part of it, forgetting that he was the very reason why she hated Lady Anna so.

She was painfully aware that young men – even, Caedwulf assured her, Brinstan – had mistresses, but it was not “the thing” to later invite them to dine with one’s wife.

She suppressed her revulsion well enough that it only showed in a twitch of the hand he held, but it seemed the excuse he had been awaiting to drop her hand and lay his on her waist.

It seemed he had been waiting for any excuse to drop her hand.

He also laughed openly, as if the statement had called up no awkward associations for him. “Whatever you do here becomes ‘the thing’, Brit. If the lady wishes to pelt her lord with peas, then that becomes the new fashion.”

She said nothing. She had forgotten everything at the touch of his hand on her naked waist, where no man had ever touched her before.

She could feel the callused ridge that had been raised across his palm by many hours of swinging a sword; and she could feel his four fingers, not merely lying across her flank, but taut and slightly curved, making four shallow depressions in her skin. He did not merely want to touch her; he wanted to feel that he was holding her.

He waited a moment, watching her, his face grown strangely serious. Then he kissed her.

Then he kissed her.

She saw at once that a kiss a husband gave to his wife was not the same one he gave to his betrothed. Always before he had been skirting the boundaries of what he was permitted to do with her. Now it seemed more natural, but also undeniable. She found she could not think of other things as she often had when he kissed her.

She tasted his tongue for the first time in months. He had been more prudent with her since their wedding date had been announced, and she supposed that his father had “talked with him” as he had promised. Now she understood that his father must simply have told him to wait. Now he had been released from his bond, and he was free to do everything he had wanted to do all these months, and free to do more.

“Dunstan!” she whispered.


He sat up, but both his arms were tight around her waist now, holding her against him, and he did not let her go. Nor did he speak, and gradually she saw that he was only waiting for her to grow calm again before kissing her and caressing her once more.

She tried to think of something to say to him, to distract him, but she could not. She tried to recognize the boy she knew in those dark, distant, heavy-​​lidded eyes, but she could not.

She tried to recognize the boy she knew.

All the fleeting feelings of companionship and complicity she had felt throughout their wedding day, all her affection for her childhood friend, all her occasional, startled thrills when he lay his hand on her back or pressed her hand against his side, all of these shrank away and hid, terrorized, like tiny animals at the approach of a storm. He was a man, and he was about to have his way with her.

“I love you,” he whispered, since, perhaps, something had to be said.

He kissed her again before she could reply, and once again she saw that what had come before was not the sort of kiss a husband gave his wife. Once again it was new and ominous.

Once again it was new and ominous.

She soon felt that she was no longer sitting up beside him but lying back in his arms, and gradually he laid her down. Somehow, as they moved across the bed, the sheets had been pulled down until they scarcely covered her ankles.

All her body was exposed to him now. Worse, now that he was no longer holding her, he was free to move down its length, and soon he had kissed his way down her chin and neck and onto her breast.

All her body was exposed to him now.

She had already allowed Brinstan to kiss her there, but she had always found it distasteful. Perhaps she had seen too many nursing babies, but it seemed a strange desire for a grown man, and a greedy and infantile gesture.

But it was not so with Dunstan.

She did not know what to do: she wanted him to stop, but if he would not stop, she wanted him to do more. She preferred the damp glide of his tongue to the rasp of his chin when he merely kissed her. His hot breath blew cool over the skin he wet, and that was better than either hot breath or wet skin alone. And if he kissed one breast and caressed the other with his hand, she was practically covered, practically modest, and she could almost forget she was naked.

But she had not forgotten he was. She suddenly noticed that he held one hand cupped over her breast and was using the other arm to prop himself up, which meant that what she had taken for a hand pressed against her leg was not a hand at all.

“Dunstan!” she gasped. It was perhaps immodest of her, but she had to see this thing before she let it anywhere near her. “What is that?”


“What?” he whispered.

“On – my – leg.”

He moved slightly, and suddenly the pressure on her leg was gone. “Didn’t Eadie tell you about that?”

“Yes, but… is it…?” She did not even know what to ask.

She reminded herself that she was a Princess, her father’s daughter, and she would not allow herself to be murdered merely out of prudery. She sat up and looked.

She sat up and looked.

What she had seen before was nothing. It did not seem that what she had seen before could even grow into what she was seeing now without violating the limitations of physical matter.

Eadie had warned her that it would seem impossible, but clearly Eadie had not been aware of this. Clearly there was either something wrong with Dunstan or something wrong with her.

“I’m sorry, Dunstan,” she said in the best Princess voice she could muster, “but I don’t think I can.”

'I don't think I can.'

“You can, Brit,” he smiled.

“I don’t think so.”

“You’ve seen a baby born, haven’t you?”

She blushed. “Yes, but… I don’t think I can bear babies, either.”

He smiled and squeezed her, and then he was kissing her neck again. “You can, beloved. You shall.”

'You can, beloved.  You shall.'

Evidently he had decided that he had laid this discussion to rest. He kissed his way down onto her breast, but this time his hand slid on down her belly, and down farther still, to where she had never touched herself, even in her bath, for fear of committing a sin she would be too shy to confess.

She brought her legs sharply together, startled even to find that she had let them fall open, but this only trapped his hand between her thighs.

“Dunstan!” she whimpered in panic.


“Husband,” he corrected gently.

“Yes, yes, yes,” she panted. It was true – he was her husband. She forced her legs open again. He had the right to touch her there, even if she did not. “Hurry, please!”

His eyebrows drew together into a look of confusion. “Are you certain? It might be easier for you if we take a little more time.”

'Are you certain?'

“No! I’m ready now.”

He stroked his fingertips down farther yet. “Don’t you like that?”

Like that? She did not know whether the question even made sense. She did not know she possessed skin so sensitive, but to like? To dislike?

Whatever she decided, it would be heartbreaking. If he hurt or frightened her, it was only the beginning of what she would endure at his hands all the rest of her days. If he did something that pleased her, it only proved that he had done it before, with other women, who knew how to please him.

“I’m ready now,” she repeated.

'I'm ready now.'

He sighed and moved his hand onto her knee, forcing her near leg down against the bed so that he could climb over it and lie between them.

“Are you certain, beloved?” he whispered. “Once I start…”

She was not certain. She had not felt so helpless since she had been tossed from her rearing horse onto her back and seen its fore-​​hooves come down on either side of her face.

But she was a Princess, her father’s daughter, and not one to delay the inevitable.

“I’m certain.”

He sighed again, but he only kissed her.

He sighed again, but he only kissed her. He kissed her long enough that she began to grow frustrated with him, fearing that he meant to take his time, as he said, rather than respect her wishes. Of course, it was his right…

But then she felt something like a hand nudging her between her legs, whereas both his hands were accounted for on either side of her head.

Now she kissed him back, passionately, hoping to distract him or, failing that, to distract herself. She had never kissed him nor even Brinstan this way, and she hoped that it was not wrong for a woman to kiss a man the way a man kissed a woman.

Now she kissed him back.

It was not until she twisted her hips slightly in search of a more comfortable position that she was aware of a growing pressure. She remembered that Eadie had told her she should draw up her knees to make it easier. Panicked, she did so too suddenly, turning the pressure into a twinge of pain and drawing a gasp out of Dunstan. Worse, her legs were quaking now, and he would know she was frightened – she, a Princess, her father’s daughter.

He stopped kissing her and only breathed on her face for a moment. He did not even seem to notice she was there any longer. Perhaps he had already passed that point of “once I start…”

But eventually he noticed her and kissed her again, not passionately now, but gently. The pain was growing meanwhile, but she had felt worse pain many times before. She twisted her fingers in his ponytail and tried to concentrate on his lips playing over hers as she waited for the climax of agony that would surely come.

She twisted her fingers in his ponytail.

After a while, he stopped kissing her again and laid his cheek heavily against hers. She still felt that dull and burning pain, but she also felt strangely full in a place where she had never before felt emptiness.

“Dunstan,” she whispered. “Are you…?”

He sighed and swallowed. She waited so long she began to think that a man simply could not talk in such circumstances. Then he said, “We. We are.”

She wondered idly what they were. Husband and wife, perhaps he meant.

“Oh,” she breathed. It had been possible after all.

It had been possible after all.

He shifted the weight of his shoulders on his elbows and he kissed her lips softly. “Love…” he whispered.

Then he moved his hips and withdrew too suddenly, too quickly. The ragged pain drew a sharp cry out of her, and her fingernails gouged deep depressions in his back.

“I’m sorry!” he gasped.

She sobbed.

“Brit! Beloved!” he said anxiously.

“It’s – normal – ” she groaned through teeth she could not unclench. “It – hurts – ”

“I know, I know,” he whispered. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”

'I'm sorry, I'm sorry...'

But once he started…

Britamund forced her eyes open and stared at the ceiling, unblinking, though they were full of tears. She was a Princess. She was her mother’s brave daughter.

His whispered chanting flowed over her face. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”

Then she blinked, and his hot breath cooled the traces of her tears. She blinked again.

At last she tipped back her head and let herself sob. She could not let this opportunity pass. It was, she realized, the one night in all her married life when she could permit herself to cry.

It was, she realized, the one night in all her married life when she could permit herself to cry.