Finally Cearball turned away in disgust.

Finally Cearball turned away in disgust. There was certainly no use in squinting or staring or twitching one’s head if the boy would not apologize when he was flatly told he was being rude.

Cynan was so like his mother: not even cousinly courtesy could hinder him in his sacred duty of letting everyone know just how displeased he was. Cearball had known he would spoil everything. It even seemed likely he would spoil any fun that might have been had in Cearball’s trip.

Behind him a voice murmured, “Pardon me, sir.” The voice was low and ladylike, and to his relief it was speaking Gaelic.

He turned and found that the voice belonged to a pair of magnificent breasts – such softly overflowing handfuls that Cearball’s hands were already curling reflexively around nothing at his sides, and indeed he was already wishing he had more than two hands.

'Pardon me, sir.'

The young woman’s breasts were held firm and high beneath the draped wool of her gown, hinting at some stern undergarment beneath, laced up mercilessly below them and straining achingly tight across them.

Already Cearball saw himself behind her, carefully loosening her laces and catching her at the moment her back arched and her breasts spilled free – capturing her and holding her sighing and stretching against his body at precisely that ecstatic instant of helplessness and release, which, if it did not satisfy her as long, was at least easier to bring forth than the other, trickier kind. One of the recurring disappointments of his young life was going to a woman’s room and finding her already unclothed.

“… the dear, departed father of me,” she was saying, “and Baby-​​Flann, our wee cousin.”

Cearball smiled a half-​​smile that he meant as mysterious and felt as foolish.

The woman glanced down at her breasts and laughed aloud.

The woman glanced down at her breasts and laughed aloud.

Not for you!” she cackled. “It’s but a week ago I was married, and I’ve a jealous babe besides!”

At least she did not seem offended. She certainly did not seem shy.

“It’s but ten days too late I am?” Cearball asked. “I curse the wind on the sea!”

“I didn’t marry the first in line!” she laughed. “I certainly wouldn’t have taken the last!”

She caught his chin in her hand as he glanced anxiously aside and turned it back towards her face.

“He isn’t here, but don’t let that start you! It’s an elf man he is, and he’ll be turning your lungs inside-​​out through your nose if you’re so much as breathing on me!”

'He'll be turning your lungs inside-out.'

Cearball’s smile went fully foolish and a little frightened. Had Murchad been telling the truth about that elf-​​girl who had married his cousin? And was it worse with the males?

“And the elf-​​husband of my sister will burn your eyelashes off your face if you’re looking at her,” she continued gaily, “and if you’re too friendly with Rua, it’s to the both of them you’ll be answering, for she’s the daughter of one and sister of the other!”

“Are you trying to get me killed?” he gasped.

'Are you trying to get me killed?'

“No, sir! I’m only here to have a look at your eyes!”

Her grinning mouth went shockingly serious, and she pinched his chin between her thumb and finger to pull his face near. Cearball took care to hold his breath.

She snorted and squinted skeptically into his eyes. “What color would you say they are, sir?”

“Blue,” he whispered breathlessly. “I swear!”

She snorted again and released his chin. “I daresay they are. A pity for her ladyship, but a girl had better learn sooner than later not to dream too large. But tell me, sir,” she trilled with her disarmingly Murchad-​​like accent, “since you seem such an excellent judge of the color of eyes – what color would you call these?”

'What color would you call these?'

She grabbed his arm and swung him stumbling around her body, only to hurl him at a little girl who had hidden herself away in an alcove. Cearball had not even seen her come in, and her sudden appearance directly in his path so outraged him with its unfairness that he nearly failed to catch himself in time.

He nearly failed to catch himself in time.

“Show him your eyes, Connie!” the young woman demanded. “This is the second-​​next sister of me, sir, and Condal is the name of her. Rhymes nicely with Cearball as you will agree.”

“It’s Connie,” the girl corrected in a squeaking whisper.

“Rhymes nicely with Cearbie!” Flann continued without breaking stride. “Fourteen years old is she. Rhymes nicely with – how old are you, sir?”

“I’m thirteen, Flann,” Condal protested anxiously.

'I'm thirteen, Flann.'

“Fie! What sort of girl says she’s younger than she is! Her birthday is but three days before Christmas, and if we’ve trimmed the halls with holly then she’s fourteen, I say.”

Flann paused for breath, finally giving Cearball an opportunity to bow as deeply as the cramped alcove allowed and murmur, “I’m glad to meet you.”

Condal only flushed and attempted a curtsey where she stood. Cearball could hear the slick-​​woven wool of her gown scraping over the stones as she slid her back down the wall.

She slid her back down the wall.

He knew well, too, how such a wide, panicked smile could sear one’s face. He felt a strange pity in his hands, as though he could have laid his palms flat upon her cheeks and smoothed their aching dimples into comfort and peace.

“Show him your eyes, Connie,” Flann commanded. “He wants to see.”

Condal made a valiant effort to open her eyes wide to him, but she was battling the shy fluttering of her lashes. Cearball thought her sister very hard to make a timid young girl stare a man so boldly in the eyes. Such a feat was not easy for a man.

Condal made a valiant effort to open her eyes wide to him.

“Battles have been waged and friendships sundered over the color of Condal’s eyes!” Flann said. “Choose wisely, good sir!”

Cearball had already seen that they were not the weird gold of Murchad’s eyes, leaving him little hope of guessing correctly. He was only a man, and as little Aileann had sagely pointed out, temperamentally incapable of judging colors.

“Ach! What color is she liking to hear them called?” he laughed nervously. “I fear if I’m saying the wrong, it’s all up with me!”

'I fear if I'm saying the wrong, it's all up with me!'

“That is the challenge, sir,” Flann said portentously. “The prophecy states that the one man who is able to name the color of her eyes shall have her, and none other!”

“Ach, Flann!” Condal wailed. “That is sheer nonsense! She’s telling fairy tales, sir! Don’t listen to her!”

'Don't listen to her!'

Her little face was so winsome at that moment: her helpless panic still forced her mouth into a wide smile, but her lower lip trembled with her earnest, honest desire to deny her sister’s lies. She was sweet and shy and good, and before such a flustered, innocent girl even Cearball possessed poise and subtlety enough to spare.

“It is not a prophecy,” he said dramatically, “but a curse! It’s a lonely lady she will die, I fear, for the dear eyes of her are having the color without a name!

Flann gasped. “Lord! The poor girlie!” she whispered. “You must name it, sir! You’re her only hope!”

'You're her only hope!'

“No, Flann…” Condal whimpered.

Cearball hesitated. He was accustomed to ladies who possessed wickedness in quantities far greater than his. He had long supposed there were truly good, sweet, gentle girls in the world, but their fathers had always kept him well away. Had Flann not said something about her father being dead…?

“What color would you say?” Flann insisted.

Cearball stood tall to give Condal space to breathe and himself space to think. To such a girl he could not merely be a man and say “green” or “gray” or “the devil if I’m knowing”. What was green from some angles and gray from others? What was wet and shining, furtive and flashing? What almost begged one to hold it, and was never the same once it was held?

Cearball stood tall to give Condal space to breathe and himself space to think.

“It’s the color, I’m thinking,” he said softly, “of certain rocks on the shore when the tide’s going out. When a man will be surprised by a little green rock shining bright among the dark stones, and think himself very lucky and take it home – but when he empties his pockets he finds it dull and dry and gray.”

He watched Condal's face anxiously.

He watched Condal’s face anxiously. He was so deep in foolishness by this time that he could feel it sucking at his boots and dragging him down.

“That’s the color without a name,” he concluded limply. “The color you cannot keep and cannot find again if you’re returning to the same shore. Are you knowing it?”

'Are you knowing it?'

It had been years since Cearball had walked alone on a beach and looked for pretty stones. For years pretty stones had been well beneath his notice, and he had forgotten how to feel that boyish joy.

However, he had not forgotten the feeling of coming home and watching all his treasures dry into dross. So many of the recurring disappointments of his young life had been of that kind.

“I’ve never seen the shore,” Condal said apologetically.


'I've never seen the shore.'

If she had been any other girl, Cearball would have immediately proposed a trip to the sea. Instead Flann did it for him.

“Poor girlie! You shall have to show her, sir! My traveling days are done: an elf man will never leave this valley.”

“Flann…” Condal whispered.

Out of desperation Cearball spoke to Condal in the only way he knew how to speak to young ladies, and even that was not well.

“Your sweetheart isn’t an elf, too, is he?” he asked her.

'Your sweetheart isn't an elf, too, is he?'

“I haven’t a sweetheart…” Condal said fearfully.

“Ach, Connie!” Flann groaned. “You’re supposed to say, ‘No…’, and be cute and coy, and make the gentleman guess a dozen ways to find out whether you’ve a sweetheart or no! She’s thirteen and she hasn’t a sweetheart and she cannot tell a lie!” Flann sighed. “I beg your pardon, sir, but she doesn’t know how to flirt yet!”

Cearball knew how to talk to the likes of Flann, particularly when her likes did most of the talking.

'We shall have to teach her.'

“We shall have to teach her,” he grinned.

For an instant, in his struggle against his own awkwardness, in his relief at letting Flann guide him, he had forgotten Condal was listening.

She did not stop smiling – she could not have stopped smiling if she tried, as he knew well – but she cringed far enough away from him that he could hear her gown scraping against the rough wall.

He frightened her.

He frightened her; she did not want him. He could scarcely have said whether he even wanted her himself: she was still too young for his tastes, and the roundest, softest, most caressable part of her was still her dimpled cheeks.

He was older now, too, and already jaded enough to suspect that such stones might best be left on the shore, though he never saw her again.

And still the boy in him wanted to pack her up and take her home.

And still the boy in him wanted to pack her up and take her home. For such eyes as hers he almost thought he could perform many astounding feats. Such eyes as hers might glow all the days of her life, forever bright and shining beneath a shallow tidepool of salty tears.

Behind him a voice was calling his name.

Behind him a voice was calling his name.

It was the funny little Duke across the room. “Good evening, sir, and thank you for noticing!” he laughed. “Now would you kindly take the two ladies nearest you up to table? We are slightly lacking in male elbows this evening.”

The Duke earnestly flapped his own elbows on either side of him like duck wings, drawing a laugh out of everyone but two: Cynan, who could not permit himself to appear amused, and his eldest daughter, whose politeness had stranded her in the quicksand of Cynan’s stodgy ill-​​humor all this time.

Gwynn was desperate enough to squeal.

Cynan, from the toss of his head, appeared to have rolled his eyes. Lady Gwynn, on the other hand, was desperate enough to squeal, “Wait!”

But her father’s elbows had already adorned themselves with ladies, and Flann was walking her own self to the table, alone.

Flann was walking her own self to the table.