'Wait here!'

“Oh! Sir Egelric!” Irene cried from on high. “Wait here!”

Egelric shouted, “Wait!” after her, but she scampered down the hall with such rabbit-​​like haste that she must have feared he would bolt for the door the instant she had her back turned. He might have indeed, but sadly the idea came to him too late.

'Oh!  Sir Egelric!'

“Oh! Sir Egelric!” she repeated as she hurried in. The hem of her heavy skirt thumped upon the rug as she let it drop and threw her arms wide. “How I am glad!”

“Your Highness…” he mumbled stupidly. He could not even bow, out of dread of any gesture that would bring his body closer to hers. She was no ghost. He was no ghost.

He could not even bow.

“Last night I have Lord Brinstan for supper,” she announced, “and this morning I have you for breakfast!” She smiled innocently, in spite of the apparent savagery or depravity of her words.

“Wait a moment – ” he gasped.

“How unlonely, all of a sudden!” she beamed.

Her too-​​careful, staccato pronunciation of “all of a sudden” struck Egelric like an empty pail clattering down a flight of stairs, but her “how unlonely” was soft and sad in spite of her smile. It occurred to him that one could not invent such a word unless one knew what lonely was.

'How unlonely, all of a sudden!'

Doukaina!” The voice of Andronikos came down from above, weird and high and angry like an unholy angel’s.

Irene lifted her head and seemed to scold him, but to Egelric their incomprehensible language sounded only like the chittering of birds. He began to back away.

Before he had taken more than a step or two, she interrupted her Greek and blurted, “How I am glad you come! I know we can still being friends. With Andronikos, it was only misunderstanding.

'How I am glad you come!'

She spoke the last word with great care, as though she had learned it precisely for this occasion. As many times as Lili had told Egelric the same thing, he thought it quite possible Irene had learned it from her letters.

“Let us go up–stairs,” she said, laying a strange accent on the “up.”

She lifted a hand towards the gallery overhead, but her stiff sleeve seemed so heavy that the gesture made Egelric’s arm ache in sympathy.

She lifted a hand towards the gallery overhead.

“I like taking my breakfast up here,” she explained. Her hand swooped down to her side, passing perilously near his own.

“Wait now!” Egelric said. “I don’t – ordinarily – eat breakfast,” he stammered, suddenly idiot enough to produce an absurd and untrue excuse in spite of having a perfectly good one at hand.

Irene cocked her head and stared at him out of her dark eyes.

Irene cocked her head and stared at him out of her dark eyes, until her heavy hair slid down to cover one of the two. Egelric had never seen her hair, nor any hair like it; it seemed so unhealthily abundant atop her wan head that it made him weary to look upon. Some old, grudging habit of gallantry in him was moved almost to the point of offering to carry it for her.

He waved at the door and began again. “I was just…”

His hand flapped limply at the end of his arm.

His hand flapped limply at the end of his arm, like the lolling head of a dog strangled on its own leash.

He let it fall and glanced down at his buckled coat and heavy boots, hoping the woman would take the hint without requiring him to explain. Short of pulling on his gloves he did not know how he could be more obviously attired for going out.

Then he noticed how heavily dressed she was herself.

Then he noticed how heavily dressed she was herself, in her stiff layers of woolen gowns, her scarves, and her shawls, and he thought she might simply have assumed he was cold. He did not know much geography, but he recalled that Lady Leila had found her first English winter unbearably rude.

He looked dubiously down at the skimpy fire that burned on the hearth. If it had not been allowed to go out entirely, it was due more to his own attentions than to the careless, uncaring servants of the place. He wondered how long it would burn once he had gone.

He wondered how long it would burn once he had gone.

A grudging gallantry grumbled out of him, in spite of his haste to be away. “Are you cold, lady?”

“It is more warm up–stairs.” Her voice was pleading without being plaintive and her eyes softly sad, revealing the “lonely” behind her stiff veils of “how glad”.

'It is more warm up-stairs.'

For the first time she dared touch him, laying her thin fingers on the back of his sleeve. She was so frail and he so heavily dressed that he felt nothing at all. She might have been a ghost – she or he.

“Let us go up-​​stairs,” she said. “You will take a breakfast one time, sir, will not you? For me.”

'You will take a breakfast one time, sir, will not you?'