'Quit, quit, quit!'

“Quit, quit, quit,” Baldwin whimpered anxiously. “Somebody’s coming!”

Colban delivered a last rap to the top of Cedric’s head and released him.

“Ach! It’s her ladyship again!” he laughed. “Now we’re in for it. We cleaned our plates, Mama!”

'It's her ladyship again!'

“Licked them, too!” Finn added.

Gwynn had been preparing an offended air in reply to Colban’s greeting, but after Finn’s, she apparently decided it was best to ignore the both of them.

“We are about to dance,” she announced, “so if any of you children would like to join us…”

'We are about to dance.'

“If we see any children,” Finn sneered, “we shall give them the message.”

“I see two children right here!” Kraaia groaned and waved her arms at Colban and Cedric. “If you think you can get either of them to dance!”

'I see two children right here!'

Colban grabbed Cedric’s arm and spun him around. “We’re dancing together!” he crowed. “Aren’t we, love?”

“Cedric’s the boy,” Emma laughed, “and Cubby’s the girl, with his skirt!”

“It is not a skirt!” Colban howled. “And in my country, the men dance together and the women clap. And none of your fancy prancing either!”

“Children!” Gwynn sighed. She looked down at Margaret and Conrad as the only two people in the room who did not seem a little wild. “Where’s Hetty?”

'Where's Hetty?'

Conrad winced. “She just went back to the hall a little while ago.”

“Oh.” Gwynn seemed distracted for a moment, and Conrad prayed she would say no more, or remember she had seen Hetty in the hall, or anything. Instead she mumbled, “We thought she was in here.”

Conrad heard a rustling behind him as Margaret began sitting up. He looked around in time to see her pale, thin face looking even more pinched and white than usual.

Her pale, thin face was looking even more pinched and white than usual.

“Mags!” he whispered anxiously.

Margaret sat up and closed her eyes.

“Surely Hetty cannot dance,” Finn said thoughtfully, “in her condition. Therefore I do not think you are truly looking for Hetty.”

'I don't think you are truly looking for Hetty.'

“Oh, no?” Gwynn snapped. “And what would I be doing? Do you think?”

Finn grinned wickedly, with all the wolfish teeth he had inherited from his father. “Looking for a partner!

Gwynn displayed more than her usual insufficient quantities of self-​​composure. “If I were,” she said coldly, “I certainly would not come here.”

'I certainly would not come here.'

“With all the children,” Finn smiled ironically.

“With all the children.”

“I’m older than you are, little girl,” Finn said, “and so is Conrad.”

Conrad pulled himself up to join Margaret on the bench. “Don’t drag me into this!” he groaned.

'Don't drag me into this!'

“Into your little lovers’ spats,” Emma giggled.

It was the sort of jab Margaret should have made, but Margaret was ominously silent.

“I shall not even dignify that comment with a reply,” Gwynn sniffed.

Conrad glanced at Margaret, hoping she would look at him to smile over the unintentional irony of Gwynn’s non-​​reply, but Margaret would not look at him.

Margaret would not look at him.

“You can dance with Cedric,” Colban offered. “I don’t mind.”

“What?” Kraaia gasped.

“That’s – very generous of you,” Cedric laughed awkwardly. “But you go right ahead, Cub.”

'That's--very generous of you.'

“Show her how you don’t prance,” Emma snickered. She peered around Colban to wink at Margaret, but Margaret did not reply even to her.

Conrad leaned over and whispered, “Mags!”

“I don’t know how to prance, I swear!” Colban squeaked. “You can dance with my cousin Finn! He prances like a pony!”

'You can dance with my cousin Finn!'

“I suppose I had better,” Finn smiled cruelly. “If every boy tries to pass her off onto some other boy, she’s likely to start crying before we get round the room.”

“I do not wish to prance–or dance – with anyone,” Gwynn hissed. “I was only looking for Hetty.”

'I was only looking for Hetty.'

Conrad dared not look at Margaret now, but he could see a wedge of white out of the corner of his eye that he knew for her face.

It was mildly flattering to be the “only one I told – not even to my sister” of a pretty young lady, but it was also proving greatly burdensome. After whispering to him her suspicions, she had sat back and stared helplessly at him, as if he – as the young man – was now supposed to confirm, disprove, or actually prevent them.

It was also proving greatly burdensome.

“Quit picking on her,” he grumbled, trying to do his duty as a young man in an easier way.

“I am not picking on her!” Finn laughed. “I’m asking her to dance. If that’s picking on a girl…”

“I do not wish to dance with you!

“Who then? One of the hairy old married men out there? Your Da?”

'Who then?  One of the hairy old married men out there?'

“Not you!”


“Oooh, Ralf!” Emma cooed.

“Nobody!” Gwynn squeaked. “Ralf is not even here!

'Ralf is not even here!'

“A pity!” Finn sighed. “I would go out there for that. It’s too funny to see that great, tall man trying to dance with a little dab of a girl like you.”

“I think they’re a cute couple,” Emma giggled.

“We are not a couple!” Gwynn shrieked, overcome at last.

“Well, no,” Emma agreed. “More like a one-​​and-​​a-​​half.”

'More like a one-and-a-half.'

She and Conrad both looked at Margaret. Surely, he thought, she would giggle at that – and if, as she sometimes did, she unaccountably decided to defend her sister instead, at least that would be a reaction, too.

Margaret only frowned slightly, though Conrad noticed the fingers that gripped her knees were white.

“I shall dance with you, if you want,” Baldwin said suddenly.

'I shall dance with you, if you want.'

Everyone turned to stare at him, and he shrank back against the bench, obviously already regretting his daring, and hoping it would be overlooked or forgotten. Indeed, the young Earl was such an insignificant individual that it immediately was.

“He is probably at home with a half-​​dozen cats on his lap,” Emma sniffed, returning to her initial subject.

“She’s small,” Finn smiled wickedly. “She will fit.”

“Oh, Gwynn likes Ralf’s lap all to herself,” Emma purred.

That did it.

That did it. Gwynn balled up her fists, crumpled her face like a baby’s, and sobbed, “I never sat in a man’s lap! Never! Except my Papa and Sigefrith!”

Finn smacked his thigh. “Care to try?” he asked gravely.

Gwynn squealed and ran from the room.

Gwynn squealed and ran from the room.

As soon as the heavy door slammed behind her, Cedric howled, “What’s the matter with you?”

“I don’t know!” Finn bit his nails and pretended to fret. “I’m not my usual self today: I needed a little help.” He bowed to the Princess. “For which I am most obliged to Your Highness.”

Emma inclined her head prettily.

“I don’t understand why every time you spend five minutes with her you make her cry,” Cedric grumbled.

'I don't understand why every time you spend five minutes with her you make her cry.'

“That is why,” Finn laughed. “I cannot stop now and spoil my record! And it’s so easy! She simply stands there and takes it until she starts to cry and runs for her Papa. It is as if she’s too stupid to have figured it out yet.”

“My sister is not stupid,” Margaret growled, but so softly that Finn did not seem to hear.

“That’s fine, that’s hilarious,” Cedric snapped. “Now I have to go dance with her!”

“You what?” Kraaia screeched. “You wouldn’t dance with me!

'You what?.'

“Then I shall dance with you too! And next time, simply ask Finn to insult your size and your honor until you cry, and I shall offer straight away! Come on!”

Kraaia winked at Finn as Cedric dragged her roughly away.

“Next time!” Finn nodded and winked.

“What a bunch of loobies!” Emma sighed.

She grinned at Margaret, but Margaret was staring at the door – not the door through which Gwynn and Cedric and Kraaia had disappeared, but the door of the dark and empty passage that led to the darker, emptier eastern towers.

'So, you want to dance, Maggot?'

“So, you want to dance, Maggot?” Conrad asked her. He did not care to dance, but he wanted to take her where her father was – where he would not be the only man burdened with the task of watching over her and worrying about her.

She shook her head slowly, still staring at the door. “I want to take a walk.”

“We – ” He leaned close and whispered in French, “We can’t go out alone. Your father would kill me.”

'Your father would kill me.'

“If he found us together, kissing or something?” she mused. “Do you think he would kill you?”

“Mags…” he whimpered.

“But first he would have to go looking…” she sighed.

'He would have to go looking...'