'What happened to boy girl, boy girl?'

Supper had scarcely begun when Cat slammed down her fork and demanded, “What happened to boy girl, boy girl?”

The hall briefly went silent as everyone looked left and right – everyone but Condal, who was already acutely conscious of her nearest neighbors.

Condal was already acutely conscious of her nearest neighbors.

“I beg your pardon, dear Catan,” the Duke said, “but you will admit that I was laboring under impossible constraints this evening. And I bid you observe that I have seated you between a knight and a sometime boy. I made my best effort.”

'I made my best effort.'

Cat snorted. “Sir Leila and Sometime Boy, is it?” She turned to Leila and said, “I apologize, sir, but I do not flirt with gentlemen wearing a prettier gown than mine. And as for you…” She patted Kraaia on the cheek. “I like me a man old enough to have a bit of beard.”

Kraaia smiled, apparently more pleased than insulted. “And if I’m a boy, what am I doing next to Godefroy?” she challenged.

'What am I doing next to Godefroy?'

“You see, Kraaia,” the Duke explained patiently, “I was obliged to seat the indulgent Sir Godefroy in the priest’s chair, and we do not make a point of seating ladies next to priests, lest it seem for the purpose of encouraging flirtation.”

“Or for the purpose of dis–couraging it!” Margaret cried. “Who can flirt within a fifty-​​yard radius of Father Matthew?”

'Who can flirt within a fifty-yard radius of Father Matthew?'

“One can flirt within an eighteen-​​degree angle directly behind him,” the Duke said astutely. “I have through experimentation and much elaborate geometry proved the theorem.”

Everyone laughed – everyone but Condal, who did not understand.

Then she felt a whisper at her left ear. “This is complicated!”

Reflexively she cringed away from his hot breath, but just as reflexively her face was contorted into a wide smile.

Her face was contorted into a wide smile.

“I’m not understanding all the English,” she confessed.

“Neither am I!” he whispered.

Condal looked up at him in surprise. He stared boldly down at her, but his back was hunched and he rocked slightly in his chair. After a quick survey of his body Condal observed that he had stuffed his hands beneath the table and was nervously rubbing his knees. He had laughed because everyone else was laughing. Sometimes Condal did that too.

“Don’t tell!” he added hastily.

“You all may flirt anywhere around Father Godefroy,” Leila said, though she stared at Condal throughout the “you all.”

'You all may flirt anywhere around Father Godefroy.'

“Except with him!” Godefroy called.

Flirt with him?” Cat gasped and pushed back her chair. “Trade spots with me, Kraaia, my dear! I just thought of something I need to confess! Or I shall, as soon as I get close enough to the good Father to get a wicked idea!”

'You mustn't upset my little seating arrangements.'

“Now, Cat,” the Duke called, “you mustn’t upset my little seating arrangements. The sacred duty of hospitality requires me to offer our Irish guest an assortment of Gaelic-​​speaking lasses to accommodate his taste.”

Cearball turned away from Condal and grinned widely at the company, and perhaps wickedly for all Condal could see.

Cearball turned away from Condal and grinned widely at the company.

“Ach!” Flann gasped. “You weren’t saying he gets to taste us!”

“Pardon me,” Cat said as she pretended to rise. “I just remembered I forgot to dip myself in honey!”

Cearball brought his arms up and leaned over the table towards Flann. Flann shook her fork at him and said in Gaelic, “Not for you!”

'Likewise, my dear.'

“Likewise, my dear,” the Duke grinned. “Do not trouble yourselves with the rest of us. I have wisely provided myself with a pair of lovely English-​​speaking ladies of my own at this end.” He patted Britamund and Lasrua on the back of the wrist. “Speak all the Gaelic you like! I only warn you that I know how to say ‘wee little man’ in Gaelic, so if you choose to make fun of me, I shall at least know you are doing it.”

“Ach!” Flann said slyly. “If Connie and Cearball are whispering about any wee little man down here, it won’t be Your Grace they’re meaning!”

'It won't be Your Grace they're meaning!'

The ladies at Condal’s end all laughed – some shyly, some openly – all but Condal, who feared she had not understood, or had understood too well. Fortunately the conversation seemed to have picked up again at the far side, and she did not think Lady Gwynn had heard.

She did not think Lady Gwynn had heard.

“The wee little man! Fie for shame, sister!” Cat said, trying to appear outraged in spite of her giggling. “Connie does not know him nearly well enough to address him so.”

“How else should she be addressing him?” Flann asked. “The modest small gentleman?” she proposed dramatically.

Sir?” Britamund tittered.


Flann smacked her palm down on the table and cried, “Sergeant Major!

Cat and Flann and Kraaia laughed, but though Britamund continued giggling, she addressed herself to the food on her plate, and Lady Leila was staring down the table at the Duke.

“Or is it the little man without a name?” Flann asked him pertly in Gaelic.

'Or is it the little man without a name?'

Cearball kept smiling, but his arms were slowly retreating towards his lap again. Condal watched his hand as his thumbnail nervously picked at his fingernails, each in turn.

It was not a pretty hand, and she could not imagine it plucking a lute or holding a pen. The knuckles were thick and rough, striped with old white scars and new purple scars. Condal could guess how he had come by them: Gorman’s brawling brothers Lugaid and Ferdie were rarely seen without scabs on their knuckles, if not also on their lips or cheeks or chins.

But Condal had never seen Lugaid or Ferdie sit and nervously twist their fingers.

But Condal had never seen Lugaid or Ferdie sit and nervously twist their fingers, and least of all when leering at a woman.

When Flann saw that Cearball would not finish her joke for her, she cried, “Only the lady who can tell the name of him can have him!”

'Only the lady who can tell the name of him can have him!'

Cat burst into laughter. Flann abruptly picked up her fork and knife and began a studious dissection of the meat on her plate.

“What are you saying?” Kraaia whined. “What’s so funny?”

“Private joke, between Cearball and Connie,” Flann called back over her shoulder.

'Private joke, between Cearball and Connie.'

Condal cringed. Surely Flann had spoken loudly enough for Gwynn to hear.

“Is it dirty?” Kraaia asked.

“Whisht!” Cat shushed her.

“I’m telling Egelric!” Kraaia grinned. “Connie’s telling dirty jokes!”

'I'm telling Egelric!'

Cat snorted. “Cousin Egelric will simply ask her what it was!”

At last Cearball’s hands ducked furtively beneath the table. Startled by the sudden movement, Condal looked up at him – just as he was looking down. His stiff smile creased deeply into his cheeks, and his face was red from ear to ear.

His stiff smile creased deeply into his cheeks.

Condal feared Gwynn would be hurt, but there would be time later that night to explain. For now, she could not allow a boy to be made miserable on her account. She knew how such smiles could feel.

She leaned closer to him and whispered aside, “I’m sorry, sir. It’s me they’re teasing, not you. You’re simply the means.”

He choked and snorted and tried to laugh.

“They’ve had the same done to them,” she explained. “It’s always so. Our big sisters were teasing them, as now they’re teasing me, and as I should have teased my little sisters in years to come. There are nine of us, you see.”

'So I was told...'

“So I was told…”

“It should have been my elder sister’s turn, but she got married too young. She got stolen,” she corrected fiercely. “But she was good and brave and denied the man until he married her.”

She knew she was telling the boy more than he needed to know – but she so longed to speak to someone of her lost love. No one ever seemed to want to hear.

“Her name was Eithne,” she added softly. “When she was happy, she was so beautiful it hurt a little to look on her. And after that man wronged her, she was still beautiful, but it hurt even more. Then he took her away.”

'Then he took her away.'

He swallowed loudly, and she saw how his eyes darted about, searching desperately for something to say. Condal knew well, however, that there was nothing to say on her plate, nor on Leila’s face, nor on the ceiling, nor on his lap.

She slid her hand beneath the table and patted the back of his arm.

“You needn’t be saying anything, sir,” she whispered, careful to stare straight ahead in case Lady Gwynn turned around. “I’m simply telling you why my sisters are teasing me so.”

“Shall I ask them to stop?” he whispered.

'Shall I ask them to stop?'

Condal glanced up at Flann, but Flann was daintily nibbling away at her supper, looking as harmless as Hetty.

“Does it bother you?” Condal asked him.

“Does it bother you?” he echoed.

Condal considered the question for a moment. It had bothered her very much, but for some reason it no longer did.

She shrugged and whispered, “If you know they’re only teasing, and I know they’re only teasing, it doesn’t matter, does it? It’s better to ignore them.”

'It's better to ignore them.'

“Or secretly laugh at them,” he winked. Condal thought he had a rather handsome smile when it was warm and real, and not tweaked up tautly at the corners.

“Or out loud!” she whispered. “Fie! They can stand it! They’re not meaning any harm, sir. They’re only starting with me a little too young.” Then Condal remembered that Gwynn was younger than she, and she hastened to add, “Though I’m thinking that depends on the girl.”

'I'm nineteen.'

“I’m nineteen,” he blurted – rather senselessly, Condal thought. But from the look of dismay that crossed his face, she knew that he had just thought the same thing. How often had Condal opened her own mouth and watched in horror as the same sort of idiotic remark tumbled out? She had to say something to save him.

“Rhymes with thirteen!” she whispered. “Flann was righter than ever she was deserving to be! Fie!”

'Flann was righter than ever she was deserving to be!'