Cat's baby nudged her with its heel.

Cat’s baby nudged her with its heel as she passed a corridor on the right, and she stopped, breaking occasionally into drunken giggles as she waited for another sign.

She had all but lost herself in the Duke’s castle by following these little hints, but she was having such a good time she had almost forgotten why she had set out prowling in the first place.

She was playing a new game with her baby! The Go-​​That-​​Way Game, she promptly named it. More fun than Kick-​​Me Poke-​​You, more fun than Find-​​the-​​Foot, and almost as much fun as Dance-​​for-​​Your-​​Da: a prowling game, such as Cats and their kittens loved.

Cat gently patted her belly and shuffled backwards towards the corridor. Almost at once her baby emphatically stretched its legs again.

“It’s a wee prowly little girlie you are, sure and certain!” she whispered as they turned down the passage. “Don’t tell your Da! Ach, the fun we shall have!”

She squeezed her belly with both hands and giggled delightedly at the thought of having a little keen-​​eared accomplice in a few years.

'I hope you know where we're going!'

“Should I open it?” she whispered before the door at the end.

Her cheeky baby seemed to take great pains to lie still, leaving her to decide for herself.

“If you’re thinking to make your Mama walk in on a naked man…” she threatened, but she pushed open the door.

She made a startled shriek as soon as she peeked inside, but she was more frightened at being caught prowling than of any personal danger, and by the time she remembered to be wary of a strange man, she had recognized Alred’s smiling face in the shadows.

She had recognized Alred's smiling face in the shadows.

“Ach!” She laughed saucily and asked, “You weren’t hearing what I was saying, were you?”

“I heard someone amusing herself out there.”

Though he had not asked, she volunteered, “I was just saying to Baby, ‘There had better not be a naked man behind that door.’”

'There had better not be a naked man behind that door.'

“And what did Baby say?”

“And she did say, as pert as a pie: ‘Ach no! There had better be two!’”

He laughed, but it was odd and only half-​​breathed, like an old man’s, and unlike his gleeful, Alred-​​like laughter that had seemed to return in the last days.

He laughed, but it was odd and only half-breathed.

Cat thought it odd, too, that he did not rise at once upon the entrance of a lady – and surpassing odd that he was sitting alone at the foot of a narrow flight of stairs with only a single guttering candle for light. It seemed she had not gone prowling for nothing.

“But I forget you aren’t understanding the Gaelic,” she said to him. “I ought to have recalled before I confessed it all. Unless the mysterious person who taught you ‘wee little’ was teaching you ‘naked’ as well?” she asked slyly.

“My dear, it was your Cousin Malcolm who taught me ‘wee little man’. You may imagine the subject of nudity did not come up between us, notwithstanding your and your sister’s own private translation of the term.”

'You may imagine the subject of nudity did not come up between us.'

Cat snickered at the recollection.

“Alas!” he sighed. “I know how to be a naked man in English, Danish, Norse, French, Greek, and Latin, but I have never been taught how to be a naked man in Gaelic. Do you suppose I am too old to learn?”

“Ach never! As the father of me always did say: ‘It’s the old wood makes the hottest fires!’”

'It's the old wood makes the hottest fires!'

She kept one watchful eye on him as she laughed at her joke. He laughed with her, but like her he wrapped his arms over his belly to lessen its shaking.

“I swear, I meant the language!” he protested. “Or so I shall tell your husband.”

“Sure and certain!” she winked. She turned her hips this way and that to make a grand, flirty swish of her skirts, but when she glanced back at him, he was roughly wiping his mouth with the heel of his hand, and the pained scowl of his eyebrows made his smile seem a grimace.

Cat smoothed her skirts down her thighs and murmured, “We were looking to go to supper. Are you coming back down?”

He closed his eyes and sighed.

He closed his eyes and sighed.

“Did you find them?” she asked hopefully. Though she had not found Kraaia and Cedric herself, she thought it would be almost as satisfying to find someone who had. She gave her baby a sly pat.

“Kraaia’s upstairs,” he muttered. “I sent Cedric home.”

“Why ever did you, then?” she gasped. “What did he do?”

Alred’s bellow startled even the baby into jerking its limbs.

“What might they not have done if I hadn’t found them?” he cried. He threw out his arm and smacked the back of his hand against the wall beside him. “I found them here! Kissing! More than kissing! It would revolt me to see any children of that age doing what they were doing – but they knocked my Gwynn down simply so they could get away to do it!”

'They knocked my Gwynn down simply so they could get away to do it!'

Cat’s mouth dropped open in shock. She had long ago decided Cedric had a not-​​so-​​secret affection for Gwynn herself, and now an entire continent of her carefully charted, gossipy world was wiped out.

Cedric did?” she squeaked.

“I don’t know whether he planned it himself, but he certainly profited from it!”

Cat could find nothing to say besides “The devil!”

Alred turned his face to the wall and growled, “Aye!

Cat turned discreetly aside in the hope he would be inclined to mutter to himself if she was not watching.

After a moment’s contemplation of the shadows, however, Alred turned back to her and asked pleadingly, “What shall I do? What can a man do with such a girl?”

'What shall I do?'

“It’s a wild one she is,” Cat admitted.

“We’ve tried to give her a good, quiet, stable home. We’ve tried to give her a sort of family. Hetty seems to think we will one day win her over with kindness enough, but Gwynn! No one has been as kind to her as Gwynn! And yet Kraaia’s one great delight seems to be tormenting her. I can’t understand it.”

'Gwynn's sort of kindness isn't what she's wanting, darling.'

Cat sighed. “Gwynn’s sort of kindness isn’t what she’s wanting, darling. She’s not wanting to hear how pretty her hair is or be invited to sew with the girls. She wants to be strong and smart and brave, and do boy things, like a boy. She’ll grow out of it. Flann did.”

Cat smiled in tipsy fondness at memories of twelve-​​year-​​old Flann: her hair tied back with a thong and her skirts kilted up around her knees, racing with the boys on her stick legs, or climbing the standing stones behind the manor on a dare, or leaping astride onto the sway back of the sisters’ startled pony…

Cat smiled in tipsy fondness at memories of twelve-year-old Flann.

“I cannot wait for her to grow out of it, my dear,” Alred said gravely.

Flann truly was all “grown out of it,” Cat realized suddenly, and the pang jolted her heart like an angry little heel. Her boyish baby sister was a woman now: a bride, a mother. Flann would never be more than a guest in her house again.

“However ill-​​suited to her temper Gwynn’s kindness may be,” Alred continued with masculine obstinacy, “she has repaid it with violence, and that I cannot suffer. But I can’t simply toss her out onto the roadside, and Hetty insists a convent would be the worst sort of place for her, and she ought to know – ”

“Paul and I shall take her,” Cat blurted.

“ – better than… anyone…” Alred faltered.

“Ach! Flann was about Kraaia’s age when Mama died. I raised one tomboy up; I can tame another.”

'I can tame another.'

Her baby kicked out hard with both its legs. Was it a warning? Was it glee?

Alred frowned, and Cat prepared herself for the protest that Flann’s “raising up” had not been an untarnished success, but in the end he only murmured, “What about Connie?”

“Ach! Connie is all but living here these days anyway. You owe me a girl, Alred,” she winked.

She waited breathlessly to see what he would say, and her baby lay still.

“What will Paul say?” he asked.

'What will Paul say?'

“Ach, Paul!” Cat laughed.

Alred smiled wryly at her. “You Gaelic lasses can dismiss any argument with an ‘Ach’, I’ve observed.”

Cat winked at him and swished the skirts of her party dress.

“I shall have to talk to Hetty,” Alred said, trying to make his soft voice stern.

“German lasses can ‘Ach’ too!” Cat giggled.

'German lasses can 'Ach' too!'

“So true,” he smiled wearily and sighed.

His face was gray as stone in the shadows, and as still. Cat knew she would hear no more if she merely waited.

“Shall we go down to supper? Baby says she’s hungry enough for two.” She put out her hand.

Alred swallowed. His face was so dim that Cat could not have said when he had closed his eyes.

“Then you shall tell Baby she may have my plate,” he said softly. “I do not believe I shall go down.”

Cat let her hand fall into the folds of her party dress. Was he so disgusted by what had happened that he could not eat? Was he ashamed of something and unwilling to face his guests?

Cat let her hand fall into the folds of her party dress.

He asked, “Would you do me the favor of sending your husband up to me when you go down, dear ladies?”

Was he injured?

She put on her most nonchalant air and asked, “Up to your room?”

“Here, please,” he said stiffly.

“At the foot of the stairs?” she laughed.

Before he could reply, the door opened behind her and Paul himself strode in without a word.

Paul himself strode in without a word.

Cat giggled nervously and stepped aside at the sight of her husband’s scowl. She had told him she was only stepping out to relieve the bladder his ungrateful child was stomping upon. She had been caught prowling.

“Speak of the devil!” she grinned, rather too late to be convincing.

'Speak of the devil!'

“Please tell Hetty to go ahead to supper without us,” Alred said as Paul kneeled on the stones before him.

“What about you, Paul?” Cat chirped. “Should I… fill your plate?”

Paul turned his profile to her and growled, “Please go down.

Painful as the rebuke was, if Paul had already run out of patience with her, it at least proved that the situation was serious. She murmured, “Aye, love,” and waddled straight for the door.

'Aye, love.'

She craftily left it open behind her, however, and before she turned at the end of the short passage, she heard Alred bark, “Next time – !”

She paused, though her baby was determinedly prodding her with its foot. She heard her husband’s soothing murmuring, and Alred hissing through his teeth.

She took another step.

But she could not tarry long, for Paul would hear. She took another step, and another, and just as she slowed to turn, she heard Alred call out in an angry sob.

She would never know what he had said: Paul told no secrets, and her keen-​​eared little accomplice was years away from being able to repeat what she had heard.

Cat would always believe it had been “Let me die!”

She would never know what he said.