'Still raining?'

“Still raining?” Malcolm grumbled.

He only asked because something had to be said. He’d already lain a long while awake, sulking with his eyes shut, listening to the rain falling on the eaves.

Drileu said a shy “Good morning!” without looking round. It was rare she looked a man in the face. Malcolm nearly flopped back onto his pillow in weariness at the thought of having to seduce a woman without the aid of his sly eyes or his sly smile.

“It’s raining ever,” she said apologetically, as though it had been her own clumsy doing, “but at least the storm blew over.”

Malcolm grunted. He wondered what she called a storm if this blustery weather was not it. With every gust of wind, the rain beat on the walls and wooden door like tiny fists demanding to come in.

“That’s Brittany, friend,” she tittered. “From Saint Bartholemy to Saint Brieg we scarcely have a day without rain.”

'Even the sinners before the Flood got off lighter than that.'

“Even the sinners before the Flood got off lighter than that,” Malcolm muttered to himself.

Overhead the rain rustled in the thatch like little hands trying to burrow their way through.

“Mihael went out this morning,” Drileu announced.

Her voice rose abruptly with the last words, as if startled. She laid the poker across the hearth with a clumsy clang and hurried to the far wall to rearrange the tidy arrangement of her shelves.

Malcolm sat up and said politely, “I’m sorry I missed him.”

'I'm sorry I missed him.'

He noticed that the woman had combed and carefully pinned up her thin hair, and her dress of the morning was unpatched and unstained. He doubted she had seen her husband off that way.

“And I sent Britou up to town to—to buy a few things,” she said. “He won’t be back for a while.”

Her voice was trembling with timidity. He doubted she had done this before.

“Not on my account, I hope,” he said gruffly. “I don’t want to be a burden to you good people.”

Chik! What nonsense!” she giggled.

Malcolm sighed upwards, blowing his shaggy hair out of his eyes, and folded his arms over his good knee to plot not a seduction but a charming escape.

Malcolm sighed upwards.

Now he wished—he sorely wished—he had stayed in the town with a convenient harlot instead, and left Land’s End to the devil. As a young man he had thought prostitutes the last pitiful resort of men who could not get a woman any other way, but he was beginning to understand their utility now. A man did not have to be charming with a whore, he did not have to pretend to care, and so long as there was coin on the table his body was not likely to let him down. A true Scot always got his money’s worth. Now he was obliged to see that this woman got hers.

He would have to get up, he decided: he would only be all the more miserable if he did not step outside first to take a piss, in spite of the rain. Perhaps the rain would even do him some good, he thought, waking him, cooling him, stroking gently over him like sweet little hands…

He threw off the blanket and launched himself out of the low bed. He had forgotten his bad leg was now the better of the two, and for a moment he scrabbled awkwardly at the edge like a kitten trying to climb a tall stair.

Drileu asked, “Are you needing a hand?” and began to turn.

Malcolm panicked and leapt. His scornful laugh went savage as he got his injured ankle beneath him and the pain tore up his spine, but he was on his feet.

He was on his feet.

“I made it out myself, darling,” he said with his most velvety burr, “but I may be needing your help getting back into it in a while.”

He had spoken without thinking, to hide the howl of his wounded pride. Now he was committed—but his pride was saved.

Drileu giggled and swayed back against her anchoring shelf without looking round. With the clumsy flirtatiousness of a young girl she cocked her head one way and tipped her hips the other, showing to worst possible advantage the lumpy forms of her body beneath her cheap Sunday gown.

She cocked her head one way and tipped her hips the other.

She had such scrawny arms that Malcolm could imagine the stick-​like straightness of her legs, and by the droop of her thighs he guessed at the droop of her breasts. She had the sagging, deflated body of malnourished mothers who merely bloated up while pregnant and could not keep flesh on their bones.

Had she been a prostitute he would not have hired her. He wondered whether he dared break his vow of pretend poverty and produce a coin or two to repay his debt to this family in an easier way. He wondered, when she had counted out her precious pennies to Britou, how much a romp with him had been worth to her.

He wondered how much a romp with him had been worth to her.

Perhaps more than she could ever pay, he thought. She would never have another such a chance with another such a man, and she would remember her hour with her mysterious Scot to her dying day. He decided he would do it. He felt sorry for her.

He shook his head to empty it and brushed his sheepdog hair back with both hands. His head bowed, his body to the firelight, his attention was arrested by the saucy gleam of several new gray hairs on his chest. If he continued plucking them, he was going to go as bald-​bodied as a weasel with the mange.

His attention was arrested by the saucy gleam of several new gray hairs on his chest.

He thrust his hips forward to get a better look at his belly. That fur was still sable-​black, at least, though he thought the pose showed off to worst possible advantage the tautness of his muscles. He tried to suck the slight roundness in, and found it scarcely helped. Out of morbid curiosity, he let it go slack, and he saw to his dismay that he had been sucking it in all along.

When had he started holding in his belly? Had it been when he’d stopped greeting gray hairs as inconvenient surprises, like thorns, and begun plucking them out as a regular duty, like trimming his beard? Had it been when he had started looking on the task of seducing tender maidens as a chore, and begun paying for the convenience of whores? Had it been when men had stopped calling him Malcolm the Cat—for his sly eyes, for his silken grace, for his long-​legged, silent sauntering—and begun calling him Malcolm the Lame?

When had he started holding in his belly?

He wondered then whom in the little house was most to be pitied that morning. Perhaps such tawdry adventures were all that remained him: seducing the anemic, brow-​beaten housewife of a man so poor he was obliged to go out fishing in the driving December rain, though it meant trusting his family to the wiles of a raving stranger. The magnificent young lover of a queen had become the graying, pot-​bellied seducer of middle-​aged women in cheap woolen gowns.

A gust of sleet scrabbled at the door like the fingernails of little hands desperate to get in. Malcolm crept closer to the woman out of a mere miserable longing for companionship—creeping not silently like a cat, but stumping and shuffling like a lame dog.

'Is it always this cold in Brittany?'

“Is it always this cold in Brittany?” he murmured into her hair.

It was the most ludicrously obvious thing to say to a woman one wanted to be close to, but he had spoken without thinking, merely uttering his own longing to be warm in spite of this chill rain—to hold someone soft and warm and dear in his arms. A man could not pay a prostitute for that.

Drileu, however, was not experienced enough with being seduced to find it anything but innovative and clever.

“Nooo…” She twisted shyly away from his embracing arms. “Sometimes it’s being colder.”

'Sometimes it's being colder.'

She giggled at her joke, and Malcolm smiled upon her with a sudden sad fondness. She seemed no more than a little girl trapped in a middle-​aged woman’s body, still prey to feelings she did not yet understand.

He stroked the back of his finger over her weather-​beaten cheek, in his first honest gesture of the morning. Her eyes fell closed, her sand-​colored lashes trembled, and the hands she held shyly to her breast clenched into a single fist, each trying to steady the other.

He stroked the back of his finger over her weather-beaten cheek.

She had feelings, and it took no more than a light touch to make them bloom out in her. Malcolm had seen her husband, and the presence of such a woman in such a house seemed almost a miracle to him, like a rosebush patiently budding year after year in a land where it never rained.

He slid his hand around the small of her back and pulled her gently but insistently closer. He decided he would do it. He would give her what he had to give. Perhaps he was still fine enough a man to be the weft on which she could at last weave her lifetime of dreams.

“Cold countries make warm-​hearted women, as I am told,” he murmured.

'Cold countries make warm-hearted women.'

“I don’t know. I’ve never known another country. Or—or had another heart,” she added shyly.

“And I’ve travelled all over, and met many cold hearts…” he droned as effortlessly as a forty-​year-​old priest reciting his five-​thousandth Te Deum.

Drileu tilted her head away from his, lifting her ears to the sweet words they both knew were coming. He still had it in him. The December rain could bang and scratch and howl—he would make this woman bloom like the Spring.

Drileu tilted her head away from his.

“…maybe even broken a few…” he chuckled.

She laughed nervously, but her body was relaxing, easing her hips towards his. Her clenched hands were opening like white roses.

He reached out to stroke her cheek again. “…but I’ve rarely met a woman who…”

She bloomed at the mere anticipation of his touch: a snowdrop in her bed of snow. Her hands parted like petals, and her fingers folded open like flowers—revealing at their heart a butterfly.

Her hands parted.