Ogive sniffled loudly.

Ogive sniffed loudly and pointed her nose precisely in the direction of the middlemost paragraph of her book. She would not give Caedwulf the pleasure of thinking she could be excited merely by an unexpected visit.

After all, if he came on Thursday it was quite unlikely he would come again for his customary Friday dinner. It was only a day’s difference, and she knew she would not see him for a minute longer than usual this week. Indeed, since Thursday’s dinner was already done, it was far more likely she would see him for less.

'Hallo, Happy!'

“Hallo, Happy!” he crowed, all the louder because she seemed so little moved. “Sis!” He grabbed Britamund’s head in the crook of his elbow and planted a kiss on the top of it.

“Oh, Brother!” Britamund sighed.

Ogive snorted and rolled her eyes.

'Your displays of affection are of the most clumsily doggish nature, Caedwulf.'

“Your displays of affection are of the most clumsily doggish nature, Caedwulf,” she muttered as she turned a page.

“She only says that because of that time I jumped in her lap and begged her to rub my belly,” he explained to his sister.

'She only says that because of that time I jumped in her lap.'

At last Ogive looked away from the book. “Never!”

He plucked her hand from the page and gave it a smacking kiss. “Must have dreamt it, then. Alas! The things I never dare! Move over, Brit.”

“May I take your book?” Dunstan asked softly, polite and thoughtful and undoggish as ever.

“Oops! Sorry!” Caedwulf grinned and made a ludicrous bow. “My lady, may I have the pleasure of relieving you of this weighty missal? Or disarming you of this wicked missile, rather, since I can see you’re already wondering which corner of it will leave the nicest dent on my head?” He laughed at his own joke.

'I can see you're already wondering which corner of it will leave the nicest dent on my head.'

“I shall put it away myself,” Ogive huffed.

She leapt up and tried to duck beneath his outstretched arm, but she passed just as he was lowering it, and she was pinched between it and his body. For a moment her shoulder slid across his waist, and his arm slid down hers as far as her hip. She gasped as she broke free on the other side, as if she had just resurfaced from a plunge into cold water. But it was not the same at all! He was so warm! So solid!

He only laughed and cried “Oops!” again, and did not even turn to see where she had gone.

“I shall tell you, then,” he announced to his sister. “At least you may mourn a little.”

“Mourn what?” Britamund asked.

'Mourn what?'

“Mourn me!” he cried. “Your only full-​​blooded brother to survive! But not for long, perhaps, alas! I am come to take my leave of you darlings, perhaps forevermore!”

“Stop scaring her!” Dunstan snapped.

“Awww! Did I scare you, itty bitty Britty?” Caedwulf cooed.

“He is only going to Man to talk to Whitehand,” Dunstan grumbled as he poked at the fire. “There is no danger.”

“That’s not what you said downstairs!” Caedwulf wailed.

“Will you shut up?” Dunstan cried. The fire iron banged and clattered against the fender with such a racket that even Caedwulf heard the warning and stopped his teasing.

Caedwulf heard the warning and stopped his teasing.

“What is this about?” the Princess asked uneasily.

“It is about Eirik,” Caedwulf said. “Move over, woman! And get over here, Happy! I finally bring you some happy news, and you still can’t keep your nose out of a book!”

There was easily enough room left on the couch for two more if they did not mind sitting near one another – there was no need for Britamund to move unless he did mind. On the other hand, he had explicitly asked Ogive to come join him. She did not know whether to feel slighted or honored.

She did not know whether to feel slighted or honored.

Britamund saw her hesitation, and she solved the problem according to her own devising by hopping up and leaving the entire couch open to the two of them.

“Get over here, Grouchy!” she cried as she dragged Dunstan to the big chair. “And tell me the truth, since my brother seems to think he’s the hero of his own fairy tale.”

Once she had flopped herself into Dunstan’s lap, Britamund grinned eagerly at Ogive, all but winking at her. Ogive heartily wished she had never so much as sighed in the Princess’s hearing.

I shall tell you,” Caedwulf said, “since Dunstan seems to think that womenfolk will collapse into piles of ash if it is so much as suggested that there is danger in the world.”

Ogive sat stiffly on the couch, leaving room for a Princess and a half between her and whomever sat at the far end – but Caedwulf did not sit after all.

Ogive sat stiffly on the couch.

She knew that Dunstan’s worries about Britamund’s peace of mind were of a very particular nature, but she was too annoyed to let the matter drop.

I shan’t collapse into a pile of anything,” she sniffed. “On the contrary, you are afraid that I shall tell you your mortal danger is a lot of dramatics.”

You will be sorry when you’ve learned how, when I lay dying of my lot of dramatics, my last breath was spent calling your name. ‘Happy! Happy!’” he wailed piteously.

“Oh, rot,” she grumbled. Nevertheless her cheeks were growing hot beneath her freckles. “That was two breaths right there.”

He laughed.

He laughed.

Like his father he had a booming laugh that showed his teeth, of a sort that had made Ogive cringe when she had first known him. She had thought then that it was graceless and crude, but she had come to understand that these were only the mislaid objections of her own self-​​consciousness: she could never laugh without worrying that it was too loud, too high-​​pitched, too raucous, too uncontained; that her gums were showing or that she had something in her teeth; or that the thing was not precisely as humorous as she seemed to think it – that witnesses would think she had gone too far, or gone not far enough.

She could never laugh without worrying that it was too loud.

Caedwulf’s laughter was in keeping with the rest of him: unshakably certain of itself. Even at an age when most boys were still squeaking like intermittent ten-​​year-​​olds when they talked and banging their knees together and tripping over their oversized feet when they walked, Caedwulf had a bearing that many men never mastered. Now when he laughed, she was a little in awe of him.

“Last and second-​​to-​​last, then,” he said. “You must allow me the four or five prior to evacuate a few ripping blasphemies before I go.”

“Agreed. Now stop your dawdling.”

“That’s it?” he cried. “No tender, tearful goodbyes? No little memento of you to carry in my breast? No kiss before I go? Simply hurry up and die?”

'That's it?'

It was obvious he was only joking – obvious and painful. He often moaned about his ongoing failure to kiss her – and yet he had never once tried.

“I meant hurry up and tell us!” she growled.

“Not even a little kiss first?” he whimpered.

Ogive clenched her teeth and made a very unkissable face.

“Not even a little something to remember you by?”

“What would you like?” she cried. “A dent?”

'What would you like?'

He laughed. Suddenly his hand darted out at her face, and before she could jerk her head back, he had pinched her nose between his fingers.

“Neep! Got your nose!” He wiggled the tip of his thumb between his fingers to prove it.

Britamund shrieked with laughter and swung herself from Dunstan’s neck. “Caedwulf, you flirt like a three-​​year-​​old!”

'Caedwulf, you flirt like a three-year-old!'

Ogive rolled her eyes. “That is not my nose. It is not nearly freckled enough.”

Caedwulf inspected his thumb for a moment before kissing it and pretending to tuck it into his pocket. “You won’t mind if I take it, then.”

He had kissed her pretend nose! Ogive did not know whether to feel flattered… or only foolish for having considered it.

He had kissed her pretend nose!

Before she decided, Britamund lifted a slippered foot and prodded Caedwulf in the calf. “Tell us what’s happening, and then we shall decide what to give you. So far all you’ve earned is good riddance and a kick in the rear.”

Her toe was teasing, but there was a plaintive sound in her voice that even Caedwulf heard. He dropped himself onto the couch with a thump and a creak of its wooden frame – not because he was graceless, but because he chose to thump.

“Brass Dog!” he sighed. “That pot’s finally boiled over, ladies.”

'That pot's finally boiled over, ladies.'

“Has Whitehand put a lid on it?” Ogive asked.

“Not a lid, but a prison grate anyway.”

“Oh, no!” Britamund cried. “Poor Eirik! Poor Sigi!”

Ogive and Caedwulf turned to each other and away from such useless exclamations.

“I told you this would happen,” she said. “And now was approximately the right time. He was growing powerful enough to seem threatening without yet being powerful enough to be a threat.”

Caedwulf grunted in acknowledgement. “They took him as soon as he reached the coast. Whitehand put an earl’s ransom on his head: three hundred marks.”

'Whitehand put an earl's ransom on his head.'

Britamund cried aloud again, but Ogive only lifted an eyebrow. She had not reckoned the young man’s worth so high. Clearly Whitehand had unusual motives.

“Granted, they are a lot of pirates,” she mused. “However, it seems to me this is a breach even of their pirate honor. Whitehand should have said one thousand marks if he only meant to condemn him. If he asks for precisely an earl’s ransom, he will have difficulty denying Eirik his earlship later, if not his earldom.”

'There isn't supposed to be a later.'

“There isn’t supposed to be a later,” Caedwulf said. “That is the point. Besides, was Jesus the King of the Jews simply because Pilate wrote it on a sign over his head?” He smiled smugly at his own cleverness.

“As a matter of fact, Caedwulf,” Ogive said with a killing smile of her own, “he was.”

'As a matter of fact, Caedwulf, he was.'

Caedwulf laughed heartily, for he had such a surfeit of self-​​confidence that he could even submit to being corrected.

“That’s what I call a dent! But here’s a stumper for you, Happy: what became of Jesus’s wife?”

“You know very well He did not have one.”

“But Eirik does. And she’s in trouble.”

“Sigrid?” Ogive asked.

“My cousin Sigi. You’ve never met her. But you wouldn’t like her. She’s a whiny sort of girl – not clever at all. She only likes babies and dresses and things. Not like you.”

'Not like you.'

Britamund did not rise up in defense of her cousin and fellow woman as she would ordinarily have done, but only whimpered, “What about Sigi?”

Ogive saw Dunstan’s arms tighten around his wife, and she knew then that Sigrid’s trouble was grave.

“Tryggve’s here,” Caedwulf said quickly. “If you hadn’t heard,” he added with a weak smile. “Whitehand let him go after he took Eirik, but then Tryggve went home and somehow let Sigi talk him into taking her here.”

“She’s here?” Britamund squealed.

“No, sis. They were captured at sea. They took Sigi away on one ship and Tryggve on another, and he doesn’t know what’s become of her. And if you saw what they did to his face…”

'And if you saw what they did to his face...'

Britamund gasped, and Dunstan barked, “Your Highness!”

“I didn’t mean they did the same to her!” Caedwulf blurted. “Only that… they were not very pleasant fellows. Not friends of Eirik’s, I mean.”

He looked almost pleadingly at Ogive, and she tried to come to his aid.

“I’m certain they only took her to Whitehand,” she said. “Even pirates have that much honor. They wouldn’t hurt a lady.”

As soon as they were out of her mouth, she saw the gulf between the words and reality, and she felt it like a void beneath her feet. There was danger in the world.

'They wouldn't hurt a lady.'

“That’s right,” Caedwulf said. “That’s why Pater’s sending me, instead of going his ugly old self.” He winked at his sister. “I shall simply pull on a dress, and none the wiser.”

Sending you?” Britamund asked.

“Me and Wyn and Brede, since they’re her brothers, and Sigefrith since he’s practically Eirik’s brother. And Aengus and Domnall so I have a son and son-​​in-​​law of Old Aed with me. And Stein, because Whitehand chomps on his tongue in frustration every time he meets a Norseman with real royal blood.”

“But Father isn’t going?” Britamund asked.

“I think it very sage of him,” Ogive said. “To go himself would lay an unnecessary emphasis on the gravity of the situation. If he only sends his son, it is saying to Whitehand that he is only a bothersome person, and clearly this is all a misunderstanding, since anything else would be absurd.”

'Anything else would be absurd.'

“Thank you, Happy,” Caedwulf nodded. “That is very nearly what my father said. Also, good riddance and here’s a kick in the rear. Besides, Brit, do you think I can’t negotiate the release of hostages all by my itty bitty self?”

“No,” Britamund murmured, “but what if… he tries something… does something…”

“Brit,” he sighed, “if it came to that, there is nothing he could do or try that Father could save me from, even if he were there. Father’s neck isn’t any harder to slice through than mine.”

Dunstan did not bark at the Prince this time. He was immediately occupied in comforting the Princess, who was whining weirdly in her throat as she did sometimes when she was about to be sick.

Ogive felt sick herself.

Ogive felt sick herself, and there were no arms around her. She felt the void between Caedwulf’s boyish bravado and his young man’s knowledge of the real danger, as if it were beneath her own feet and she were falling into it.

For once she did not stop to think how she would appear to others, and she drew her knees up onto the couch and plunged at him.

He gasped as if she were a tubful of cold water, but he was so warm! So solid! Her pounding heart seemed to be hammering itself as much against his ribs as against hers.

He was so warm!

Oh, he was for her, but he was not yet hers. And if he went away now and was killed – !

She would surely be sent into a convent then and have no man at all. But perhaps it would be her most merciful fate. No other man would satisfy her now. There were kings less kingly than Caedwulf.

But just then he was uncharacteristically awkward – laughing awkwardly, patting her back awkwardly.

“Don’t start grieving for me yet!” he said. “I’m not dead yet, and besides, it’s too late for me to start calling you Weepy.”

He shook his shoulders as if to shake her loose, and when she relaxed her clutching arms, he pushed her gently away.

He pushed her gently away.

This time she had gone too far.

“As if I should cry for you,” she huffed, meeting her embarrassment as she always did – by further insulting herself. “As if I would get all red and blotchy for you. My face is red and blotchy enough already, thank you.”

“Don’t forget I have a nice, clean spare nose here for you.” He showed off the tip of his thumb again.

“Keep it,” she muttered.

“I shall wear it into battle with pride,” he announced, and he kissed her pretend nose and pretended to put it away.

'I shall wear it into battle with pride.'