She thought she might as well act like a child if she was to be treated like one.

Gwynn dug a canal from the center of her mashed turnips and then fought vainly against the flow of pale gravy that trickled out onto the plate. Playing with one’s food was a childish pastime, she knew, but she thought she might as well act like a child if she was to be treated like one.

She was being ignored entirely.

No—she was not even being treated with the smiling indulgence adults reserved for children. She was being ignored entirely. Ethelwyn spoke more to Hetty at the other table than to her, and Sebastien had scarcely glanced at her so far, despite being seated across from her. All his attention was for Cat.

All his attention was for Cat.

“Oh?” he said hopefully in response to some comment of that lady’s. “You have a sister?”

“Do I!” Cat laughed. “Eight of them!”

'Eight of them!'

“Eight!” Sebastien gasped and fanned his neck with his hand. “All married, I fear?”

“Only I and the three eldest are married, but mind you, some of the youngest are a little too young.” She shook her finger in his face.

“And so you mean also some of them are not.” He grinned and shook his own finger back at her.

“Ach, but it’s only the one of them is here with me.”

“Younger or older?”


“Ah! So!” He laughed triumphantly. “And she does not eat?” He waved at the plates before him.

'And she does not eat?'

“My sister has a new wee baby at home,” Cat murmured.

“Ah! Euh…” His dark brows lowered over his eyes, and he pinched his lips between his fingers. Gwynn could almost hear him calculating as he attempted to reconcile this apparent contradiction.

“She isn’t married,” Cat added softly.

“Ah! That is it! That is no matter to me, however. As you may know, my mother never was married. I would be a bad son if I thought ill of your sister.”

'As you may know, my mother never was married.'

“Is that so?” Cat put down her knife and looked thoughtfully at him. “Have you ever been to Britain before?”

“Never before! What must you think of me?” he laughed. “But you must introduce me to your sister and her baby. I do love babies.”

Cat rolled her eyes. “Ach, that’s a fine one! You love babies and cuddling and holding hands and cats, and you don’t drink or stay out late, and you probably even like balling a lady’s yarn for her and weeding her garden.”

Cat rolled her eyes.

“I do love babies,” he insisted, “even if I am not the perfect man in the other ways. And I do not know what is ‘balling a lady’s yarn’ but it sounds like something I should like very much.” He winked at Cat.

“I like all of those things,” Paul whined.

'I like all of those things.'

“And that’s why you’re a married man today,” Cat said conclusively and turned her attention back to her plate.

“But, your sister…” Sebastien insisted.

Gwynn did not believe that his interest in Flann was anything but a pretense allowing him to flirt with Cat in front of her husband. Otherwise, why think of an absent girl—who might or might not be as beautiful as her sister—when there was a perfectly present, perfectly pretty girl sitting right in front of him? Unless she was not truly as pretty as everyone said she was…

Unless she was not truly as pretty as everyone said she was...

But Ralf had said she was prettier than Princess Irene!

How she wished she had gone to dine with the Queen instead! Nor was it only because she could have basked in the tragic romance of the Byzantine Princess. The absence of so many men from court on this night meant that Ralf was certain to be there to compensate, and she could also have basked in his attention.

She could not deny he possessed a humpbacked nose.

Thus had Gwynn traded the certainty of a handsome, gallant gentleman she knew for a foreign gentleman she didn’t. Unfortunately, the unknown gentleman was proving to be less than gallant, and as for handsome, she could not deny he possessed a humpbacked nose.

Cat put down her knife again and looked Sebastian over with a critical eye. “Do you think it likely he could get past your father, Paul?”

Paul snorted. “No.”

Paul snorted.

“Is your father a guard dog?” Sebastien asked him.

“And did your mother smell of rose hips?” Alred asked.

Paul gasped, “What?”

Sebastien rolled his eyes. “It is a kind of French insult,” he explained. “A rather low-​class one, in fact. But I suppose to the English it seems quite clever.”

“Are you insulting my mother?” Paul asked Alred.

'Are you insulting my mother?'

“He is rather insulting you,” Sebastien said. “But it seems to be his way,” he sighed.

“Perhaps he means to insult the French,” Ethelwyn muttered.

'Perhaps he means to insult the French.'

“Hmm, do you think?” Sebastien snapped. “As far as I know, we are still carrying ourselves well, in spite of the poor opinion Sir Egelric’s steward has for us. Perhaps his opinion is less important than he thinks it is.”

Gwynn looked pleadingly up at him, praying he would meet her eyes and read something in them that would help him understand. Perhaps he did have an abrasive personality, but there was no denying everyone at the table was deliberately stroking him against the lie of his fur.

They all were—even she—for they were all party to this deception. But Gwynn, at least, did not find it funny. She had a sick feeling down low in her stomach every time she looked up and saw Ethelwyn sitting in her father’s place.

She had a sick feeling down low in her stomach every time she looked up and saw Ethelwyn.

It would have been bad enough to pretend he was her father. The truth was even worse: she had to pretend to pretend that he was her father, for as she had protested when the joke was first explained to her, was it not obvious to anyone with eyes that small, dark-​eyed Alred was the father of all these small, dark-​eyed children?

But that, she had been told, was the best part of the joke. It was also the part that most distressed her.

“What were we saying?” Sebastien asked Cat. “Ah, your sister…”

'Ah, your sister...'

Cat sighed. “Bastien, I shall be glad to introduce you to my sister, but I should warn you that Paul’s father guards her like a… like a dog, since she has been poorly treated by one man in particular and a lot of men in general. And, besides, Flann isn’t looking to meet anyone just now, if you see what I’m meaning.”

“Flann?” He blinked his gray eyes rapidly. “Flann… of course. Flann is your sister? I believe I have a letter for her.”

“A letter for my sister?” Cat blinked back at him. “From whom?”

“From Father Brude. He wrote a few letters when he was dying, and asked me to deliver them.”

'From Father Brude.'

“You knew Father Brude?”

“Of course! I was his student before he came here. I was with him when he died. Else, why do I come to this place?” He laughed softly and shrugged. “He gave me the book of your Abbot and told me to meet him. I have a letter for your Abbot, too, but also for your sister.”

“Oh… It’s a good friend he was to her,” Cat murmured. “When she needed one terribly. It’s often I’ve wished he would somehow return, if only for her sake. She’s still needing such a friend.”

'She's still needing such a friend.'

“Is she troubled?” Sebastien asked gently.

Cat leaned closer as if she meant to tell him more, but she sat up suddenly. “It’s more than troubled any girl would be in her place. That’s all I shall say.”

“Perhaps a letter from Father Brude would help her. Even if she know’s he’s gone.”

“Ach,” Cat sighed. “In our country, it’s ill luck a letter from the dead brings.”

'In our country, it's ill luck a letter from the dead brings.'

“But he knew he was dying when he wrote it,” he insisted gently. “Perhaps he told her something that he had wanted to tell her when he returned. Now. When she is troubled, as he must have known.”

Gwynn blinked back tears and busied herself with her beans.

Gwynn blinked back tears and busied herself with her beans.

She had always found Flann’s story tragically romantic, but she had never thought to add this exquisite detail of a caring priest attempting to help her from beyond the grave. Sebastien seemed almost kind, almost romantic himself, to have brought such a letter all this way.

Cat said nothing, avoiding even her husband’s eyes to stare off at the far wall.

“Did she have a son or a daughter?” Sebastien asked, just as softly, as if it was still a part of his plea for the priest’s sake.

'Did she have a son or a daughter?'

“A wee daughter,” Cat smiled. “Pretty as a pearl. Liadan is the name of her, for she has gray eyes like the Liadan of an old story. Ach! but her mother means to—”

Cat stopped abruptly and frowned at Sebastien.

“I love the babies,” he smiled sheepishly. “My heart was broken today when I learn that Bruni is not a baby, wasn’t it?” He looked to Ethelwyn for confirmation.

Ethelwyn attempted to smile, but almost at once his eyes widened with horror. Gwynn followed his gaze and immediately saw why—the Abbot had just stepped through the curtain.

The Abbot had just stepped through the curtain.

His plate was laid, as was the custom, but no one had expected to see him tonight. He always seemed to be fasting and avoided the Duke’s fine supper parties most deliberately.

“Pardon me—oh!” He stopped just before Gwynn’s father and looked down at him in surprise. “Pardon me, everyone. I believe I shall sup with you after all, and the time it took me to walk here seems to prove I need it. Once is not a habit, after all, as they say.”

“A good monk has no habits, that’s what I say!” Cynewulf cried.

'A good monk has no habits, that's what I say!'

The Abbot chuckled indulgently. “Old Man, you have either confused monks with soldiers, or you are making a joke of questionable propriety.”

“I know!” Cynewulf said wickedly. “That’s half the joke!” He looked to his father for approval, but his father was only faintly smiling.

His father was only faintly smiling.

“And as for your father…” the Abbot said with exaggerated sternness and turned to Alred. “Do you think to hide from me by putting Ethelwyn in your place? I already know you were fighting today, on a Sunday—and Holyrood Day no less—but I am not the priest here any longer. I leave you to the good care of Father Matthew.”

'I leave you to the good care of Father Matthew.'

“Uh oh…” Cynewulf peeped.

There was an eerie silence in the room, broken only by one choking gasp from Hetty, who was apparently trying to strangle a sob.

Gwynn pushed her knife deep into her turnips and abandoned it on her plate. She did not think she would eat a bite tonight.

Gwynn pushed her knife deep into her turnips and abandoned it on her plate.

Gwynn supposed that the sight of her brother—who looked so much like David—had at last caused poor, sensitive, innocent Hetty to perceive “the best part of the joke”. Perhaps she had at last realized that she had been playing the role of an adulteress all evening, all unknowing.

Gwynn waited for her father to say the funny thing that would make them all laugh and put them all at ease, but he said nothing.

It was Sebastien who spoke. “I am sorry? Father, who do you say is sitting on this chair?”

'Father, who do you say is sitting on this chair?'

“Ethelwyn is,” the Abbot said, “unless we are calling him Duke tonight?”

“Very good. I see.” Sebastien pushed back his chair and stood.

Sebastien pushed back his chair and stood.

Gwynn’s father sighed. He was white and weary-​looking as she had not seen him in quite some time. “Listen, old man…”

Sebastien waved at Alred, though he spoke to the room. “I thought that only this one man is rude here, but I see you are all. This is how you greet your guests, and a priest also.”

'It was only a joke.'

“Bastien…” Cat tried to catch his hand, but he jerked it away. “That is how we greet everyone here: with a joke. It was only a joke.”

“No one laughs,” Sebastien pointed out. “Malo! Tu viens?

Gwynn knew he was asking his secretary whether he was coming along, but she also knew he was not truly asking. Malo ducked his head into his shoulders, but he stood and followed Sebastien to the door.

He stood and followed Sebastien to the door.

“I’m so sorry,” Hetty whimpered.

Ethelwyn sent her a look that would have told her he was much more than sorry, but Hetty did not see it.

Gwynn’s father stood before the door had closed behind Sebastien and Malo at the far end of the corridor.

'Excuse me, everyone.'

“Excuse me, everyone,” he said softly. “I believe I have some apologizing to do.”

Somehow his disappearance seemed to leave everyone adrift, and they all stared into their plates or at harmless points across the room.

'He might have taken that better.'

“He might have taken that better,” Egelric sighed.

No one answered. Gwynn was not quite certain she even agreed.

Father Matthew suddenly asked, “Am I to understand that you, sir, are not the Duke?”

Hetty sobbed.

'Am I to understand that you, sir, are not the Duke?'