Sophie so rarely asked for anything that Stein was anxious to oblige her whenever she did.

Sophie so rarely asked for anything that Stein was anxious to oblige her whenever she did – even if she asked for something as ill-​​advised as riding eight miles through the uplands on a moonless night.

She had asked so timidly, so weakly that he had been tempted instead to trundle her up to the guest bed at once, wrap her up in something like a robe, warm her feet in something like slippers, and lay her head in something like his lap. But something about Sophie made him hesitant to apply to her the treatment that had always served with Lathir.

There had been the question, too, that he had not known how to refuse.

There had been the question, too, with its one word that he had not known how to refuse: she had asked him, “Please, couldn’t we go home?”

Sophie was ordinarily careful to speak of “the manor”, or of “Thorn-​​row”, by its name, as if she were only a tenant within its walls. It had so pleased him to know that she thought of it as home – at least when she was tired and timid – that he had wanted to take her there.

Now she was home, and she scarcely seemed to know it. She had wandered all the way up to their bedroom without even stopping to remove her cloak or check on the children, and once there she seemed perplexed.

Now she seemed perplexed.

“Forget something?” he asked.

“I didn’t… think of how late it would be…” she murmured. “Everyone’s abed.”

He looked around the room, convinced by her wandering gaze that there was supposed to be a third person present.

“We can wake your maid if you need her,” he offered. “She won’t mind.”

'We can wake your maid if you need her.'

She pinched the front of her cloak between her fingers and pulled it away from her breast to peer down inside.

“No… this dress laces up the front. I suppose I can manage…”

“I shall be your maid tonight, Soph,” he said cheerily. “Close your eyes and see whether you can tell the difference.”

'I shall be your maid tonight, Soph.'

The merriment cost him such effort that he abruptly and belatedly appreciated her own.

Sophie had spoken cheerily all the day long, making everyone laugh in spite of their sorrow with her ongoing commentary on just what naughty Lili herself would have thought of all these arrangements. Ordinarily the Duke might have filled that role, but for once he had not risen to the occasion. And somehow, Stein thought proudly, it seemed more fitting for Sophie to do it; her little, Lili-​​like German bywords peppered throughout had made it seem all the more real. She had even made Egelric laugh.

But she had not been laughing inside. He saw that now. And even now he could see her hefting her smile, as a mummer might pull a heavy costume over his head.

And even now he could see her hefting her smile.

“If I am foolish enough to close my eyes and let you anywhere near my unclothed body, I can guarantee you I shall know the difference.”

He laughed, though it was untrue – or perhaps true, but not in the way she meant. He thought her maid would have felt far more comfortable touching her unclothed body.

“Then I shall close my eyes,” he offered.

“Ach, no!” she laughed. “I can see it now!” She put out her hands and groped comically at the air. “‘What’s this? Over here? To the left? No, the other left?’”

But she turned her back to him and bowed her head, which seemed to grant him at least the permission to remove her cloak. That much he dared.

As he waited for her to open the row of clasps, he did something else he loved to do but rarely dared: he bent his head near to the back of her neck.

He bent his head near to the back of her neck.

He had liked her hair better of old, when she had carefully coiled it into curls of her own desiring, but he preferred it knotted on her head as she wore it now to the frizzy thicket she had allowed it to become in recent years.

He liked to see her taking care of her appearance, but more selfishly, he loved the sight of her neck: the graceful length of it; the whisper-​​soft little curls that clustered at her hairline, too short to reach as far as the knot; and the white skin, of such fineness that her hundreds of many-​​colored freckles seemed like flecks of gilding between pages of translucent parchment. The skin of her breasts seemed much the same, but he had never dared bring his face so close to it.

He pulled off her cloak.

He pulled off her cloak, and he was sensitive enough a man to delight in the feel of it as being just the thing for a lady. It was silky on the inside and smooth on the outside; and though it was heavy enough to keep her safely warm, it still draped gracefully over her body like a sheer web. He had heard her – and Lili – remarking over the fineness of the Queen’s cloak, and though Sophie had never asked him for such a cloak for herself, he had been pleased to be able to give one to her.

“That must have been very difficult for you, Stein,” she murmured.

'That must have been very difficult for you, Stein.'

He glanced down at the cloak he was folding. He did not think it was what she meant, but since he could not guess what else it might have been, he pretended he did.

“I must confess, I did not actually close my eyes.”

She did not laugh, but she smiled and sighed.

“I meant… today,” she said stiffly. “So soon after… losing your wife…”

Stein walked to the chest and laid the cloak carefully upon it. Then he returned to her side. He was just tall enough to see over her shoulder to the white, thin-​​fingered hands that picked at the laces of her gown, promenading down her breast like a matched pair of spiders.

'I thought more of Lili than I did of Lathir.'

“I thought more of Lili than I did of Lathir,” he said.

She bent her head and watched the work of her hands. He knew that when she stopped to consider them, they horrified her with what they had done. He had seen her wiping them anxiously in her skirts, and he had seen her yanking at one with the other, or shaking them at the ends of her arms as if they could be twisted or made to fall off.

He might not have dared to speak further, but he wanted to distract her from the sight of her hands. He rubbed his fingertips into the small of her back and said, “I thought more of Sophie than I did of Lili, though. You lost your best friend.”

Her body stiffened, her neck straightened, and one of her hands quivered as if one spider had been stuck in the web of the other.

Her body stiffened, her neck straightened.

He was sorry he had spoken and touched her at the same moment; he could not be certain which had bothered her. He thought it was his touch, if not both: her body often went rigid when he touched her. He dropped his hand and took a step away.

She clasped her fingers together over her breast, stilling her hand. “My only friend,” she corrected. Then she began squirming and squeezing her shoulders out of her gown, as if the half-​​loosened laces had lost their chance and would simply have to make way for her determination.

She did have friends, that he knew. He knew also that they all lived in fear of a reckoning. She could say to every one of them that they had not been friends enough.

He stepped around before her and said, “Now, that isn’t so, Soph. You have lots of friends. Hetty and Alred, and Edris, and Estrid, and – ”

'Now, that isn't so, Soph.'

She laughed. Even her ironic laugh was rich and deep, and he could enjoy it when it was not directed at him, as he enjoyed a storm when he did not have to step outdoors. Tonight he was not certain whether he was getting wet.

“You know what they say!” she crowed. “That Sophie! Glad to see her come, and glad to see her go!”

He scolded, “Sophie…” but he felt his traitorous face turning red. He had heard it, and he had defended her, but no amount of storming over such slights would ever make up for his one great failure to come to her aid.

She turned her back to him and squeezed painfully out of her gown like a white grub grown too big for its butterfly body. Her nervous hands went up and picked their way across her hair, twin spiders sorting over the fruits of their web, flinging pins and pearls aside as they went.

“Sophie…” he pleaded, frightened of her, and frightened still more for her. He wanted to stop her hands, but he so seldom dared touch her, for fear of frightening her too.

She unwound her hair from its knot and shook it down into its frizzy thicket, panting and laughing as if it were a victory.

'That's why I need a maid!'

“Sorry, sir, but that’s why I need a maid!”

“She shall pick them up in the morning,” he soothed. “Sophie…”

“She’s the only friend I ever had, I think,” she said with a strangely wistful giddiness. She spun about to face him, and her curls bounced, and her breasts with them, now that they were free of their laces.

'Do you think so many people will cry at my funeral?'

“Ach, Lili!” she sighed. “We were so alike. She said it herself. And yet everyone loved her, and no one loved me. Do you think so many people will cry at my funeral?”

“Sophie… Sophie… don’t even think of it…”

'Sophie... don't even think it...'

“You know why, Stein? It’s because she was pretty and clever, and I am only clever. And nobody likes a clever woman, but they can forgive her for it if she’s pretty enough.”

“Sophie, please…” He tried to touch her again, but he pulled back his hand and stepped back, startled, as soon as she moved.

“And with all her beauty, all her charm, all her friends, she still loved me. Can you understand it, Stein?”

'Can you understand it, Stein?'

He opened his mouth to say he did, but she did not pause to hear a reply.

“She helped me when no one else did!” Her rich voice cracked into a high-​​pitched, nervous squeak. “She helped me when no one else dared! That’s a true friend, Stein. That’s what I mean. That’s the only true friend I ever had. Look at what she – did for me – ”

'Can you understand it, Stein?'

One of her hands darted out towards his face, but her arm was not long enough. He tried to catch it, but it swooped away, landing on her mouth, where it was joined by the other to clamp down a sob.

If she believed that Lili had been her only friend, then she must have felt more alone than she ever had, and his heart ached for her.

Stein was a sensitive man, and he could sympathize with many refinements of distress, but his own heartaches were a very literal, very physical sort of pain in his chest. He could soothe the ache for Lathir by holding Baby Gamle against it, but his ache for Sophie had gone uneased for far too long. The sight of her tears after seeing her laughing all day was too much for him, and he acted selfishly to stop them.

The sight of her tears after seeing her laughing all day was too much for him.

She took a step away from him as he moved to catch her, but this time he did not let her escape. Her body went rigid as soon as his arms closed around it, as it always did when he tried to hold her, but he held her tight against his chest, hoping she would realize she wanted to be held.

But she began to struggle, as he had feared. He was stronger than she, and he held her fast, though he could only imagine it was what Leofwine had done to her.

He began to count in his head.

He began to count in his head, but like a fool he started at one and counted up, rather than at five or ten to count down. He had set himself no limit, and now with every passing second he asked himself how long he could bear to torture himself by so torturing her. He was sensitive enough to feel the horror of being a brutal man, even if only briefly – of knowing that he now had to win submission if he were to have any hope of forgiveness.

Then, instead of struggling against him, her arms suddenly wrapped around him and squeezed. He thought it was an odd sort of self-​​defense, until he noticed her head lying weakly on his shoulder, and he understood that he was simply being hugged.

He understood that he was simply being hugged.

He tentatively loosed his hold on her, and found she did not struggle away. He rubbed one hand soothingly over her back as she cried, like any man, but hidden beneath her tangle of hair, the other hand found her secret, soft curls. He stroked his fingers over the silky skin of the back of her neck, rubbing the tension out of the muscles until her head rolled against his shoulder at the slightest movement of his hand.

“I never thanked her!” she sniffled.

'I never thanked her!'

“For what?”

“For – ” Her hands briefly clenched over his tunic, and he felt her fingertips digging into his back before they relaxed again. “ – what she did for me…”

“For you?” He snorted. “I don’t know what she did for you. But I shall never forgive myself for not thanking her for what she did for me.

“What did she do for you?” Sophie asked warily.

'She saw me so sad.'

“She saw me so sad, and she thought of just the thing to cheer me up. And she even told me what to say to talk you into marrying me.”

“I knew you didn’t think of that yourself, Stein,” she growled, but she did not appear displeased.

“I’m not as clever as you or Lili,” he shrugged. “Fortunately Lili was there to point me in the right direction.”

Her face bloomed into a wicked smile that could have come from Sophie of the spiral curls. “In your underpants,” she reminded him.

'In your underpants.'

He blushed, but he said, “I hope you did thank her for that.”

“I did, I did,” she laughed in her throat. “You think she did all that for you, do you?”

“I certainly do.”

“Do you know what I think?” she asked.


“I think we should name our first baby Lili.”

Stein tried to keep his composure.

Stein tried to keep his composure, but his face was aching from being split nearly in two by a foolish grin. He already had a house full of children, but it was a wife he wanted. Somehow, after months of vain politeness, with his panicked fumbling he had found her.

“What if it’s a boy?” he asked.

“Then we keep trying.”

He grinned still more stupidly at her. He wondered idly whether a man could be forgiven his lack of cleverness by being pale enough.

“What are you waiting for, Stein?” she drawled. “Girl season?”

'What are you waiting for, Stein?'