'Good evening, gentlemen!'

“Good evening, gentlemen!” the Duke beamed, cutting Cynan off in what would surely have been a tediously formal greeting. “May I relieve you of any encumbrances before you come in? Cloaks? Gloves? Swords? Lips?”

Cynan choked, but Cearball had paid too little attention to the English to know why. Across the room a masterfully tailored dress was calling the better part of his attention to the swooping curve of a female waist, which flared out to wide, round hips that were quite plainly made to be grasped.

Across the room a masterfully tailored dress was calling the better part of his attention.

As his hands curled tentatively around the hips’ shadowy double before him, he realized with a start that they had already held the original – for it was the Duke’s eldest daughter he was seeing. Last night he had paid so much attention to what she lacked in front that he had failed to notice what she possessed behind.

“Sir?” the Duke asked.

“Your Grace?” Cearball replied automatically.

“Eyes, perhaps?”

“Ah – they’re blue,” Cearball blurted.

Cynan laughed at him, and Cearball did not know why.

'Cynan laughed at him, and Cearball did not know why.'

“We left sword and cloak and gloves at the gate,” Cynan said. “And Cearball simply left his brain at home.”

“What?” Cearball snapped.

“I think he simply does not keep it where you expect to find it, young man,” the Duke said gravely to Cynan.

Cynan laughed aloud, with his mule-​​like braying, as Cynan – wisely – rarely laughed at anything. Nevertheless Cearball was beginning to feel more ridiculous than he. The last thing he had expected was for Cynan and the Duke to join forces against him.

'Oh, dear.'

Alred stepped aside and began to invite them in, but he was interrupted by a shout of “Leila!” that went up from several male throats like a cheer.

“Oh, dear,” Alred sighed.

Leila laughed and trotted out of sight behind a pillar, where she was met by the sound of a brief scuffle and a cry of male victory.

“Before we go in I had better explain The Rule to you, gentlemen,” the Duke said ominously.

'I had better explain The Rule to you, gentlemen.'

He cleared his throat and bowed sharply like a herald, to the tune of some giggling from a small group of children seated in the corner.

“Whereas the male company significantly surpasses the female company present on this occasion,” he intoned, “and whereas we have failed to suppress the adornment of our hall with mistletoe, and notwithstanding the confiscation of all blunt and bladed weapons at the gate, in the interests of Christmastide harmony and the maintenance of the unbloodied state of all noses here foregathered and henceforth to come, we have resolved: that any lady who passes beneath mistletoe shall be obliged to kiss no more than one gentleman per occasion of passing, and furthermore that this gentleman shall manifest his claim by being the first to declare aloud her Christian name.”

He coughed and turned to the blonde girl in the corner.

“How did I do?”

“You forgot to say he has to say it after she passes beneath it,” Kraaia said wearily. “No fair trying to get her before she even makes up her mind where to walk.”

'No fair trying to get her before she even makes up her mind where to walk.'

“Even so!” Alred bowed to her and turned a shrewd eye back onto Cearball and Cynan. “Understood?”

Cynan laughed as if he had. Cearball, however, feared he had not, and he said uneasily, “That’s rather complicated…”

“Be glad you didn’t come last year, my lad,” Alred chuckled wickedly as he turned to lead them into the hall.

'Be glad you didn't come last year, my lad.'

“What was The Rule then?” Cynan asked with an animation that was remarkable for him.

“Last year The Rule was of such Byzantine complexity that several cases have not yet even come to trial, for inability to determine so much as which party has been wronged. Fortunately for you, sir, gentlemen may come and go as they please, which means that the worst that can possibly happen to you is that you will fail utterly to kiss or be kissed.”

“That would be a worst thing!” Cynan said loudly.

'That would be a worst thing!'

“Luckily you do have the honor of being already acquainted with the Christian names of all the ladies here,” Alred said as he led Cynan away, “which gives you a sporting chance, and does also relieve me of the duty of introducing you to them all. But let us meet the men, so that you may know who your opponents are…”

Cearball was able to extract himself from these introductions merely by lagging behind until he was simply left behind. From where he stood he had scarcely to turn his head to make use of his eyes.

'Good evening, gentlemen!'

Lady Gwynn had turned towards him, in no wise spoiling the effect of her nipped-​​in waist and round thighs. Her breasts, he decided after a quick glance, might even have been heavy enough to lie in a man’s cupped hand, and if they were already so full at her age, he thought they would be worth coming back to see in four or five years. Her beauty was like a rosebud, still tightly furled at the tip, but swelling out roundly and irrepressibly below. Even a hasty man would not be disappointed, he thought, if he were to pry open that bloom before its time.

And then the man who had been standing at his side stepped forward, eclipsing Lady Gwynn and revealing a mournful little face at her side.

And then the man who had been standing at his side stepped forward.

Cearball’s hands immediately curled in a spasm of anger. He wanted to protest, though she had said nothing – to argue with nothing more than the sorrowful gaze of her eyes.

He wanted to tell her that he had only wanted to wash his blistered feet and comb his hair and lie down between cool, dry sheets. He wanted to tell her that he could not help his eyes if girls wore expertly tailored gowns that clung to their every curve. He wanted to tell her that it was her he had wanted to kiss, and if he had been obliged to kiss another girl in another way, she had only herself to blame, and no right to look at him like that–

Then the man passed, revealing Gwynn again, and she blotted out everything with the light of her pale dress and pale skin. Then Cearball could look away.

Then Cearball could look away.

Of course, he told himself, she could not have known what had happened last night, and still less could she know what thoughts passed through his mind. Nevertheless her mournful eyes seemed to stare through him. He had the strange idea that she was sorry he was bad.

“And Finn – Finn!” Alred cried aloud with joy. “Cearball! Where’s Cearball?”

Cearball hurried after the sound of his voice. “Your – Grace…” he finished in a whisper.


“There you are, lad!” Alred said. “I want you to meet Egelric’s son Finn!” He clapped a hand on the shoulder of each.

“He has a son?” Cearball asked shakily.

“You met Wulf and Gils already, didn’t you?” Alred asked.

By now Cearball had enough of a sense of his own foolishness not to protest aloud that they were only little boys – but in his mind he protested loudly.

The boy's thin neck had not yet grown into his Adam's apple.

The boy’s thin neck had not yet grown into his Adam’s apple, and his face had not yet grown into his nose, but from the smugly insolent lift of his eyebrow to the self-​​assured slant of his hip, he was simply a smaller version of the man – verily a pocket-​​sized nemesis the Fates or the boy’s father had sent to taunt him.

“So you’re Cearball?” he asked coolly, with a slight air of disappointed expectations.

“I – I met your father and brothers yesterday,” Cearball stuttered. “Is he here, then?”

'Is he here, then?'

“He went out to Acanweald and hasn’t come home yet,” the boy shrugged. “I don’t ask where he’s been,” he said with a strangely lilting accent, “and he doesn’t ask where I’ve been, and we get along fine. Shall I tell him you were looking for him?”

The boy grinned suddenly, revealing a mouthful of his father’s wolfish teeth.

“No! I – ”

“I’m surprised you’re so surprised,” another lilting accent said to the right of him.

'I'm surprised you're so suprised.'

It was, quite plainly, an elf – a full-​​size male elf – and quite plainly the father of the exquisite elf girl Cearball had met last night – and therefore quite plainly the jealous husband of the woman whose breasts had hung enticingly just across the table from him all through supper.

“I’m certain Connie must mention him a few or twenty times if she talks to you last night,” the elf said. “No?” He threw an arm over Finn’s shoulder’s and peeped, “Cousin Finn?” like a girl.

Finn’s fair cheeks flushed red, but he squeaked back at him, “Why, Cousin Connie, what a hairy chin you have!”

“That is only so the bad boys don’t try to kiss me, Cousin Finn,” the elf cooed. “But ask me nicely and I may shave my little chin for you!

'Ask me nicely and I may shave my little chin for you!'