She never walked when she was free to run.

Margaret appeared as small and demure as her sister when she sat, but when she stood she had a remarkable coltlike length to her legs. Over the last half-​year she had finally learned the knack of them, and she had a graceful, loping stride that was fair to see and carried her far. She rarely walked when she was free to run.

She never walked when she was free to run.

This morning, however, she stopped short as soon as she cantered into the court, run up against an invisible wall.

Two men were coming through the gate. They were only black shadows against the gray shadows of the gatehouse, but Margaret knew those silhouettes.

This morning, however, she stopped short.

Godefroy had remarkably short legs for a man of his height, and they were bowed slightly outward at the knees and turned neatly inward at the ankles, for he had been fashioned by his Maker to sit a horse and only incidentally went afoot. Still, he held his back so straight and his head so high that he made it seem a noble way to walk.

Conrad, on the other hand, though built like his father, had always seemed to Margaret more like a beclothed and belted barrel hobbling about on stubby legs. She had never before noticed that his legs were long enough to bow slightly outwards. She had never noticed how neatly inturned were his ankles, nor that he was capable of putting his feet so deliberately one before the other, nor that he held his head so high.

She only hoped that while she had been noticing, he had not noticed her.

She only hoped that while she had been noticing, he had not noticed her.

She did not know where they had gone and could not guess where they were going. She could not risk taking the left door or the right door in case they followed; the only path left to her was straight ahead.

The only path left to her was straight ahead.

There was no way out of this tower, but no one ever went into it either. The half-​finished chapel was impassable; a pile of dusty future floorboards had been laid down the aisle, awaiting carpenters who never came, and an empty handbarrow tipped onto its side had been abandoned in the place where the altar should have been.

Beyond was what Hetty already called the Morning Room.

Beyond was what Hetty already called the Morning Room, though she had never spent a morning in it; so long had she looked forward to its bays of eastern windows—the one luxury the Duke’s dusk-​facing castle lacked.

The windows were all in place, but without glass.

The windows were all in place, but without glass they were crueler than blank walls. The Morning Room had become an ornate storeroom, and indeed the room that would have been Hetty’s did not exist at all: a second tier of windows let in cold light far overhead, and though the heavy supporting beams were in place, its future floor was still a pile of boards behind the chapel door. No one had ever stood in it—no one but spirits could. Overhead there was only the ghost of a room, or a room that might never be born.

Margaret dreaded the place now.

Margaret dreaded the place now.

Her father had ordered its foundations laid in the weeks following David’s birth, and through six seasons she had played in it. Through all the stages of work it had been every sort of fort and castle and ship, and many battles had been fought here, many dragons slain, many sieges laid.

Margaret scarcely came any more.

Then Lili had died, and work had ceased, and Margaret scarcely came any more. The magic was gone; try as she might she could no longer pretend it was anything but what it was: a blank room, seeming solid and strong from the outside, but hollow, shadowy, and lonely inside its walls. She could no longer escape the reality of her life here.

She could not even escape Conrad.

She could not even escape Conrad.

“There you are!” he said accusingly. “What are you doing in here?”

Margaret stood up staff-​straight, though even on her long legs she was and always would be shorter than he.

“Looking for something!” she bleated.

'Looking for something!'

“For what?” He picked up the scoop that lay atop a nearby bag of plaster and stabbed it further in. “Nails and plaster?” he smirked.

He planted his foot atop the barrel beside it and leapt neatly over the sack, coming down so lightly before her that Margaret failed to cringe. Conrad had always landed with a thud, she thought—or she had always thought he had.

'What's this I hear about a kiss?'

“Now what’s this I hear about a kiss?” he asked her.

Margaret snorted through her nose like a mare. “That was not a kiss!” she groaned. “That was mistletoe!

“That’s not what I heard!”

“If you already heard, then why are you asking me?” she demanded.

“Because—I didn’t teach you how to kiss just so you can show off your talents to boys you scarcely even know!”

Margaret stamped her foot and snarled through her teeth. She did not even know where to begin in addressing the many outrages of this comment.

'I wasn't showing off anything!'

“I wasn’t showing off anything!” she cried. “I only kissed him to annoy him, and so he would leave my stupid sister alone! All he truly deserved was to have a plate full of stew smashed over his head, and perhaps—if he was lucky—to have the high honor of seeing me stick my tongue out at him!”

“You didn’t stick your tongue into him, I hope?”

Margaret yelped at him and shoved him with both hands. Conrad only laughed—he might have learned how to leap lightly over barrels at some point in the recent past, but he still had the weighty immobility of a full barrel himself when it came to shoves.

'I want to see this boy.'

“I want to see this boy,” he announced. “Just what was he doing to deserve the high honor of being passionately kissed by you… and what do I have to do to earn it, nom de Dieu?

“He was abominable,” Margaret huffed, ignoring his latter question. “Whenever anyone said anything the least bit kind or pleasant, he had to say the opposite. Right in front of Hetty, too! I have never seen such a rude, repulsive boy in all my life, including you. He looked right at Gwynn and said our grandfather raped our grandmother.”

Conrad’s brows plunged suddenly downwards like the hems of heavy curtains falling. “He was talking about rape at the supper table?”

The corner of his mouth farthest from her face turned down sharply into a scowl.

The corner of his mouth farthest from her face turned down sharply into a scowl. Half of his face looked like his father’s when his father was angry—and when Godefroy was angry one knew it was a serious affair.

“Well, he didn’t say Grandfather did it…” Margaret conceded. “But he said it did happen sometimes when girls were stolen away…”

“Did he say the word?”



Conrad snorted, and the vivid anger on his face went out with a grim finality, like bars clanging shut and locking. He would say no more about the matter, but he would not let it out of his mind. Margaret began to feel slightly queasy, as though she herself had done something wrong.

“What do we know about those two, anyway?” he grumbled.

“They had letters from Murchad and King Enna,” Margaret said. “And a code from Eirik. Malcolm saw.”

'Malcolm saw.'

“I know that, but simply because they are who they say they are, it doesn’t mean they are characters we should like to know.”

“Cearball is great friends with Murchad…” she offered.

“I don’t know Murchad, either,” he said.

“Well!” she huffed. “If you don’t know him, he must be a scoundrel!”

'Shut up when I'm thinking at you, Maggot.'

“Shut up when I’m thinking at you, Maggot,” he snapped. “He can’t be altogether a gentleman if he kissed your sister the way he did last night. Unless it was more of your just mistletoe,” he sneered. “Did you see it?”

“I don’t know,” she grumbled. “I just saw the back of his head.”

“My father says the only one in the room who had a good view was your father, and I wager Cearball knew it, too. There’s something wrong with a man who will kiss a girl like that in front of her father, mistletoe or not. Even your brother reins himself in when Sigefrith’s around.”

Margaret took advantage of the excuse of Dunstan’s ardor to turn her face away and snort in derision.

Margaret took advantage of the excuse of Dunstan's ardor to turn her face away and snort in derision.

She had kissed Conrad on occasion, it was true, and they had discussed the mechanics of the pastime to some extent, but she had never heard him hold forth on its proprieties. The whens and hows and whys formed an entire field of diplomacy of their own, and Margaret was beginning to suspect she wanted no part of it.

“Listen, Mags,” he said stiffly, “we don’t know anything about those two. If Cearball came because Eirik and Murchad sent him, that’s one thing, but there’s no reason for this Cynan character to come along.”

“But he’s our cousin!” she protested. She was horrified to hear herself defending that rodent, but she inexplicably longed to prove Conrad wrong.

'But he's our cousin!'

“That family never sent you so much as a letter, so what’s he doing now? He shows up here and starts harassing your sister—and talking about rape and kidnapping at table—and then you go and kiss him and start warning him about how he’ll never get his castle back if he doesn’t take you with him—”

“That was just nonsense!” she wailed. “I was just making that up to tease him!”

“Listen to me, Maggot!”

He brought his face so close to hers that she reflexively tried to shove him away, but he was as immobile as ever, and she only shoved herself back against the wall. Then there was no getting away from him.

He brought his face so close to hers that she reflexively tried to shove him away.

“You don’t know anything about him except ill, so far. You don’t know what’s just mistletoe and what’s just teasing to him. He’s fifteen years old, Mags! And that Cearball is even older. They don’t just tease at that age. Don’t give them any ideas, and for the love of Christ don’t make them think you want to. Pardieu!

'He was just stupid and ugly anyway.'

He turned away from her and spat at the sack of plaster and kicked its yielding side.

“He was just stupid and ugly anyway, and he probably knows it,” she huffed defiantly, though her mouth was softening into a quivering pout. “I was just doing it so poor Gwynn wouldn’t have to kiss that sweaty slimy toad for her first kiss with a boy.”

Conrad laughed sharply and turned back to her with a teasing smile. “What a time to break out with a bad case of sisterly love!” he cooed and caught her chin in his hand.

He caught her chin in his hand.

Margaret was one of the few who knew that Conrad, like his father, naturally favored his left hand. Like many left-​handed knights, they had learned the use of their right—not only to hold a sword, but for all their daily activities, so that a potential opponent could never guess their handicap.

With his right hand Conrad wrote as well as any similarly unstudious right-​handed boy. He swung his sword with it and punched boys in the face with it, held his reins with it, cut his meat with it—he even scratched himself and picked his nose with it.

There remained to the left only a few very unconscious or very unpracticed gestures. She had observed he rubbed his eyes with it when he was tired, and if a bee stung him, it was his left hand that smacked it. Perhaps he had only reflexively touched her face, or perhaps he had simply not yet touched girls’ faces often enough to learn the trick of it with his right.

Perhaps he had only reflexively touched her face.

“Sounds like she got the first kiss of her dreams,” he chuckled. “And your poor father’s nightmares. And the stupid slimy toad got the first kiss of his dreams, too, I wager. Father said he didn’t know what hit him.”

Margaret giggled weakly. “It probably was his first kiss,” she agreed.

“How did he do?”

'How did he do?'

“He just squirmed around and squinted up his face,” she said.

Her own face, meanwhile, simply could not be calmed into the haughty gravity she ordinarily preferred to affect in such circumstances. A ridiculous, awkward grin—such as she would have loudly mocked on her simpering sister—had taken up residence in its place and would not be moved.

'Tongue him?'

“Tongue him?” he asked.


“How did you do it?”

“I don’t know…”

'I don't know...'

She could not stop giggling, and indeed she had the strange idea that if she giggled foolishly enough and helplessly enough, it would somehow permit her to shrink down and sneak away from Conrad undetected.

But Conrad clapped the palm of his right hand against the wall and leaned against it, both bringing himself closer to her and barring her exit.

“What kind of kiss?” he asked.

'What kind of kiss?'

“The squishy, smooshy kind,” she smirked.

“Did I teach you that kind?”

“That’s the only kind you know, pardieu!

He laughed appreciatively as he always did when she swore or blasphemed in French. But his low laughter was not in the least weak and silly as hers had suddenly become, and she could not understand what was wrong with her, nor why it was not wrong with him.

'I don't believe I know that kind at all.'

“I don’t believe I know that kind at all,” he smiled. “Whom have you been kissing in my absence, Maggoty-​Mags?”

“No one!” She laughed wildly and tried to sink beneath his arm, but his head and his arm followed her down.

Alors, pardieu, you invented a style of kissing you haven’t taught to me, and after I taught everything I know to you!”

'No one!'

“I simply jumped on him and smashed my face all over his!”

“Sounds like fun,” he purred. “Show me.”

“You wouldn’t like it,” she giggled breathlessly.

Oh, she was being just as stupid as her stupid, silly sister, and she could not make herself stop! Was this how it felt to be Gwynn? Would she never be calm, clever Margaret again?

“Show me,” he whispered.

'Show me.'

His face was so close to hers she could feel his breath on her cheek. The taut smirk of his mouth had eased, and his lips hung soft and ready to be kissed near her lips. He would kiss her one way or another, and suddenly she had forgotten how to refuse.

Her only chance of avoiding the kiss he had in store for her was to give him a different one of her own. She braced herself against the wall, counted down from three as she had the night before, and then she leapt at him.

She leapt at him.

For an instant he was as stunned and helpless as Cynan. Even his usual barrel-​like immobility was broken, and she knocked him back against the opposite wall. For an instant it was very like that stupid, senseless, squishy kiss of the night before, and she was only smashing her unyielding lips against his.

Then he recovered his balance and stood himself straight again, sweeping her up lightly along with him.

Then he recovered his balance and stood himself straight again.

Last night she had been a little surprised to observe that Cynan’s mouth did not feel like Conrad’s, but now she was flatly disconcerted—Conrad’s mouth did not feel like Conrad’s either.

Had it been so long that she had forgotten? It felt softer and wetter and hotter, like something molten that more easily molded itself to her own. With his lips he seemed to be chasing a tiny moving target all over hers, and even when she twisted her face away, his lips kissed their way across her cheek or chin until they found it again.

“It was not like this!” she protested in a gasp.

Conrad only turned his lips aside long enough to whisper angrily, “It had better not!”

'It had better not!'

Then he kissed her again, and finding her lips parted now he thrust his tongue inside.

It was not like the casual jousting with tongues that they had practiced last summer until her jaw had grown tired. It was not like any of the kisses they had worked out together. He was not allowing her to demonstrate how she had kissed Cynan; he was not trying to learn anything or teach anything at all. He was kissing her simply because he liked to kiss her—or because he liked her.

The thought stung her like a bee, and at last she found the Margaret-​like strength to kick and buck and set herself free. Coltlike she leapt lightly over the barrel and loped away.

Coltlike she leapt lightly over the barrel and loped away.