'It must be the most romantic thing!'

“It must be the most romantic thing!” Gwynn sighed. “I wish you would ask Osh to do my hair.”

“It wouldn’t be so romantic if he did every lady who asked him,” Flann smirked.

“Not every lady… just his dearest friends… and just for the party…”

Gwynn smiled her most winsome, most irresistible smile, but her smile could only act upon those who could see it, and Lasrua was sitting behind her.

'You must never ask an elf such a favor, my lady.'

“You must never ask an elf such a favor, my lady,” she said stiffly. “You might as well ask him to come to your bed.”

Gwynn froze with her arms still outstretched, like a bird shot down in flight. The awkward silence of the ladies was smothering, but worse than this was the ironic smile and sniff of scorn from Kraaia’s corner.

'You might as well ask him to come to your bed.'

Then Margaret laughed. “It’s a good thing he didn’t take all the hints you’ve been laying on him all week! What a hussy he must have thought you!”

“She did not know,” Hetty soothed.

Sweet Hetty had always known how to settle the sisters’ frequent squabbles, but her little murmured reassurances were proving to be no balm for the silent, stinging disdain of Kraaia. However, there was one girl who seemed immune to Kraaia in any dose, and at that moment she stepped out from behind her sister’s chair and came to Gwynn’s aid.

“Ach!” Condal lamented. “What is he thinking of me, then? I asked him plain!”

'I asked him plain!'

So painfully silent had all the ladies been at Gwynn’s blunder a moment before, so merrily loud was their laughter now. Gwynn shivered and smiled in grateful adoration.

“And what did he say, our dear Osh?” Cat chirped.

“He said his fingers were too tired from Flann!”

“Fie, his finger!” Cat hooted. “I should say it was, sister!”

'I should say it was, sister!'

Cat’s wicked laughter was all for Flann, but the hint of naughtiness in Condal’s eerie eyes was aimed at Gwynn alone.

Lasrua said, “My father knows you do not know, of course, but he is too shy to explain it to you himself. You must understand: among my people, it is considered erotic for a gentleman to put his hands in a lady’s hair.”

Gwynn clutched Condal’s arm and prepared to moan, but Margaret interrupted her swoon.

Gwynn clutched Condal's arm and prepared to moan.

“You elves swim naked together, and you think it’s erotic when a man touches your hair?” she squeaked.

Hetty whimpered, “Girls…”

Leila laid her head back against the wall and smiled. “In my country,” she said in her soft voice, “we do not allow men even to see our hair. The merest glimpse of a stray curl is considered erotic.”

'The merest glimpse of a stray curl is considered erotic.'

Gwynn took another deep breath, but Margaret could not let even this romantic thought stand. She squinted suspiciously at Lasrua and asked, “Who does your hair, then?”

“It is different with brothers and fathers,” Lasrua sniffed. “You don’t consider it erotic when your father and brother kiss you, do you?”

Margaret wrinkled her nose in disgust.

'I'm certain Meggie doesn't know about erotic kisses yet anyway.'

“I’m certain Meggie doesn’t know about erotic kisses yet anyway,” Gwynn said soothingly.

“I do so!” Margaret snapped back.

“How?” Gwynn demanded.

“As if you were the expert! Who’s the lucky man?”

“Girls!” Hetty gasped.

“Lots of them!” Gwynn said. “Haven’t you ever heard of mistletoe?

“There’s nothing erotic about that! Whom have you ever kissed but a lot of bearded old friends of father’s? Or not bearded, like last year!” she added with a trilling laugh.

'Or not bearded, like last year!'

“I’ve never seen you kiss any but the same beards!” Gwynn howled. “How erotic was that?

“Girls!” Hetty squeaked. “I do not think we should talk about what is… erotic…

“Why not?” Gwynn asked her. “It simply means ‘pertaining to eros,’ which means ‘love’. It is Greek, you know,” she added grandly.

'It is Greek, you know.'

She had studied much Greek that “pertained to love” in the past months, though she was beginning to wish she had branched out into Gaelic meanwhile.

“I know, dear,” Hetty murmured, “but… it is not quite the same…”

“It is simply another word for romantic,” Gwynn said. “An even more romantic word for romantic,” she sighed.

Cat and Flann giggled together as if on cue. Condal, however, only smiled a dazed smile.

“Don’t you know what ‘erotic’ means?” Gwynn asked her. Condal shook her head slightly, and Gwynn came to her aid at once. “It means ‘romantic,’” she confided.

'It means 'romantic.'

Cat and Flann laughed at poor Condal’s ignorance, which Gwynn thought rather unkind.

Condal smiled and nodded gratefully at her, however. Condal understood the word “romance” very well by now. Gwynn had already ascertained that they were of like mind on a goodly number of matters pertaining to love.

Margaret turned her shrewd glance down at Cat next and asked, “Why doesn’t Paul braid your hair? He seems like a very erotic elf.”

'He seems like a very erotic elf.'

Hetty made a strangled sound of protest, but Gwynn gasped in agreement. “Why don’t you let him? Your hair would be so sweet braided! Wouldn’t it, Connie?”

“And it would be so romantic,” Condal agreed.

'And it would be so romantic.'

Gwynn sighed in ecstasy and clung to Condal’s arm to keep herself on her feet. She had never yet had a friend whom she did not at least suspect of teasing her or indulging her when it came to romance. Now Gwynn knew she was not stupid or silly as Margaret or certain boys liked to say – that she was not worthy of Kraaia’s smoldering disdain – she was simply misunderstood.

“And so erotic,” Flann snickered.

Cat tipped back her head and twisted one of her soft curls around her finger. “Who said he doesn’t?” she purred.

'Who said he doesn't?'

This time Gwynn was determined her swoon would not be interrupted.

“Oh, you sly creature!” she moaned. “You leave everything to the imagination!”

“I hear you like imagining things…” Cat shrugged innocently.

Erotic things,” Flann added in a low chuckle.

Hetty murmured an anxious, “Ladies…”


“How I wish I could marry an elf,” Gwynn sighed. “Don’t you, Connie?”

“Ach, I think it will be easier to find a man who’s knowing how to do up my hair!” Condal protested with an endearingly modest giggle.

At last Hetty had found a subject she dared expand upon, and she turned to Leila and asked, “Can you imagine our men braiding our hair?” with a pink-​​faced little giggle of her own.

Leila laughed. “Godefroy has more hair than I – he ought to know how.”

“You ought to braid his hair, in that case,” Margaret laughed. “Wouldn’t that be funny? I mean romantic?” she corrected, clutching her stomach and groaning as if she had a flux.

“Conrad does, too,” Leila added softly with a mysterious smile.

'I know of one young man who knows how to braid a lady's hair properly...'

Lasrua said carelessly, “I know of one young man who knows how to braid a lady’s hair properly…”

“Who?” Gwynn gasped, tugging on Condal’s arm to drag her along in the fun.

Lasrua folded her hands over her knee and flashed a wicked smile. “Why, Finn, of course.”

Margaret shrieked with laughter.

“Finn?” Gwynn cried. The sheer unromanticness of the idea burned her sensitive soul. “With his enormous clunky hands!”

'With his enormous clunky hands!'

“Finn’s hands are not enormous,” Lasrua protested. “Indeed, they are rather fine for men’s hands. He has done my own hair – when we were small, of course. However, he is no longer a child, and I allow it no longer.” She smiled again. “It would be a shame if he lost the knack…”

“Ach!” Cat clapped her hands and laughed. “Just what we’re needing! Connie’s hair won’t do a thing it’s told! Perhaps if a man had a sit-​​down and a talking-​​to with it…”

'Perhaps if a man had a sit-down and a talking-to with it...'

Gwynn rushed to the aid of her new friend. “He shall not!” she declared. Then she recalled that there had been some whispers of Finn and Condal being promised, and she added stiffly, “That is – not until and unless he is her lawfully wedded spouse.”

“Perhaps I overstated it,” Lasrua said coolly. “Let us say that one may not ask an elf to braid one’s hair unless one could as easily ask him for a kiss. An erotic kiss, that is.”

“Bring out the mistletoe!” Margaret crowed. “That’s the only kind of kiss Gwynn knows! I wish he were here tonight! I would ask him for her!”

'Bring out the mistletoe!'

“Don’t you dare!” Gwynn shrieked with all her lungs – just as a soft but businesslike tapping sounded upon the door.

“Whoa!” someone called out from the hallway outside. “Wrong door!”

Gwynn forgot everything and squealed, “Brit!”

She forgot Finn – she forgot insufferable baby sisters – she forgot Kraaia’s snorting and eye-​​rolling – she forgot everything except Condal, though she only remembered her new friend in the nick of time.

She paused in her wild dash for the door and explained, “It’s my sister Brit! It’s the Princess! Now we can go down!”

'Now we can go down!'