Kuntigern hurriedly blew a cloud of fine dark dust.

Kuntigern hurriedly blew a cloud of fine dark dust from the surface of the plate he was polishing and buffed a small patch clean with the heel of his hand. He leaned in close and was startled by the grotesque apparition of his own black eye leering up at him.

“The devil ride that Welshman,” he growled through clenched teeth. Then he leaned in again to inspect his teeth.

Then he leaned in again to inspect his teeth.

The clop-​​clop of the boot heels reached the last step, and he heard the now-​​familiar clank and rattle and creak as the swollen door stubbornly opened just so far and stuck in its frame – and stuck, and stuck, and stuck through repeated yanking.

“I come! I come!” he called over his shoulder. He had thought wood-​​heeled riding boots a sure sign of Wulsy come to exclaim over the night’s events, but Wulsy knew the trick of the door.

He unwrapped the polishing cloth from around his finger and dropped it onto the plate, but meanwhile the person outside managed to pull the door open without the trick, making the house gasp as if punched in the belly.

Kuntigern sat up and leaned back to look. He could see nothing yet, but he heard the door slam shut again with a crack like a fist to the chin.

The boots clop-​​clopped around the corner, and in the same instant he was both struck with a sickening recollection of the sound and stupefied by the sight of a now-​​familiar cloak of turquoise blue.

The boots clop-clopped around the corner.

He made it no farther than laying his hands on his knees before he was paralyzed by the turquoise stare of her eyes. He felt that his fate – whatever it would be – was about to befall him, and he had nothing left to do but wait and see what it was.

'You have a rather contrary door.'

She only said, “You have a rather contrary door.”

Kuntigern had been expecting sobs or shrieks or passionate pleas, or even a jealous husband staggering in behind her, dagger raised, prepared to feed his own balls to him on the tines of a delicately chased silver fork.

Kuntigern had been expecting sobs or shrieks.

This business-​​like young lady, however, seemed only to have come to recover her necklace and go on her way again – no hard feelings. He let his tense shoulders fall in relief, but a fluttering disappointment caught in his throat, and he made up his mind to draw out this last meeting as long as he could. It would at least pass the time until Wulsy inevitably showed up to deliver the latest news.

He swept his hand neatly down the back of his kilt as he leapt up, beaming, “Well, good morning, Princess – ”

'Well, good morning, Princess--'

“You should fix it,” she interrupted.

His pleats swung softly against the backs of his thighs and settled. He looked down at his hands and remembered that he had not even wiped the dark powder from them. He felt dirty and awkward and crude.

He looked down at his hands.

Finally he said, “You must think me a mighty talented man. Silversmith, jeweler, and carpenter too.”

He managed a smile that he meant for teasing, but he would have gladly accepted sheepish or even hesitant. There were many ways to say “No hard feelings” with a smile.

He managed a smile.

A slow bead of sweat trickled down his scalp, down his temple, down his cheek and jaw. Estrid watched it stonily, as though it were an insolence merely to perspire in her presence. It seemed that this young lady’s feelings were hard – very hard.

Kuntigern made up his mind to get this meeting over with as quickly as he could.

“So,” he said gruffly, “I guess you’re here to get your necklace.”

'I guess you're here to get your necklace.'

“No. I am here to inspect your work, and if I am not satisfied, I shall return until I am.”

He looked all over her face for a hint of a joke, but found none. At last he grunted and lightly kicked his stool aside to make way for him to reach into the chest beneath the table.

Once below he felt bold enough to call up, “My work, is it?”

His voice boomed delightfully in the narrow space beneath the table, making him sound like twice the man he felt.

“If you weren’t satisfied the last time – ”

The necklace in hand, he grabbed the edge of the tabletop and pulled himself up by the other.

'--it must be the kind of work that leaves a woman wanting more.'

“ – it must be the kind of work that leaves a woman wanting more.”

In the big room his ordinary voice now sounded weak and womanish in comparison. He felt like a fool. All she had to do was laugh…

“Do you still have the length of chain you removed?” she asked coolly.

“Aye, I do.”

'Aye, I do.'

He handed the necklace back to her with scarcely a glance and bent to fish around in his little bowl of snips and scraps of metal.

He had left it there since Tuesday afternoon, but he had vaguely imagined himself keeping it as a souvenir of the time he had tossed Brass-Dog’s sister onto his cluttered workbench and hammered her till she walked with a wobble, though he knew no one would ever believe the tale. Now he did not even want to tell it to himself.

He pinched the bit of chain between his grimy thumb and finger and shook it before her face.

“Want to show Sophie how long it is and how big around?” he sneered.

'Want to show Sophie how long it is and how big around?'

Was that all it had been? Some game of noble girls? A contest to be the first to frig the new tradesman in town? He had thought her charmingly awkward and naive, though willing enough, but it was beginning to seem the seducer had been she.

“No,” she said. “I want to show you something.”

She pinched the other end of the snippet of chain and plucked it from his fingers. Then she slipped the necklace onto the back of her opposite wrist and held out her open palm.

“Give me your hand,” she commanded.

'Give me your hand.'

He remembered again that he had not yet wiped them, and he glanced helplessly aside in search of his towel. “They’re filthy…” he whimpered in confusion. He could not touch a Princess with grimy hands.

Estrid caught his arm by the wrist and held it up to eye-​​level. She squinted along the back of his hand as she wrapped the bit of silver chain around his first finger. It did not quite fit.

“Close enough,” she shrugged.

She twisted his hand around until the palm faced upwards and slapped the chain into it.

“I want you to keep this piece of chain that fits your finger,” she said.

'I want you to keep this.'

Kuntigern chuckled uneasily. He was still not certain she was not insulting his size.

“And I shall keep this piece of chain that fits a lady’s neck.” She held the pearl of her necklace dangling between their eyes for a moment. “And so, you shall remember next time not to use a lady for something your hand can do.”

He gaped at her at first, uncomprehending, but gradually boiling over with the rage of humiliation as he began to comprehend.

He gaped at her at first, uncomprehending.

“Just what are you trying to say?” he whispered.

“I am trying to say that if you only care for your own pleasure, your hand will do.”

“Are you trying to tell me I don’t know how to please a woman?”

'Are you trying to tell me I don't know how to please a woman?'

She smiled. “I do not know who is better situated to know than I.”

“How about – how about a good lot of women before you?” he spluttered. “They seemed satisfied with my – with my work!

“Hold this.” She grabbed his wrist again and draped the necklace over his hand.

Before he could shove it back at her, she turned and reached behind her head to unwind the end of her scarf.

“Are you certain it was your work that satisfied them?” she tittered.

Her boots clop-​​clopped prosaically on the flagstones, but the swaying hem of her stiff cloak hinted at the sinuous rippling of her body beneath it, counterbalancing with her hips the broad gestures of her arms.

The swaying hem of her stiff cloak hinted at the sinuous rippling of her body beneath it.

Kuntigern wondered whether she truly intended to ask him to clasp the necklace around her neck – and whether he would dare. Just in case, he glanced aside in search of his towel again.

“Perhaps they were truly hoping to catch a well-​​to-​​do husband?” she mused dreamily as her head dipped and her hips swayed. “Or perhaps they were after the trinkets you gave them?”

She tossed the scarf onto the chair and shook her braid free of her collar.

“You did give them trinkets, didn’t you?” she smiled. “Little bracelets and things?”

'Little bracelets and things?'

She stared a moment into his stony face, but he knew he could at least deny her the pleasure of seeing a reaction.

She shrugged and lifted her hands to the collar of her cloak.

“So, I already have a well-​​to-​​do husband,” she said. “And I could buy everything in your shop. With my pin money. Even this.”

Even this.

She archly flicked one of his pendants away from his chest and turned on her heel, grinding silver shavings between stone and wood.

“If ever there was a woman who would tell you what she truly thought of… your work, it is I.”

Kuntigern gently wrapped her necklace over the back of his hand and clasped the pearl beneath his thumb. He followed her halfway to the fire with such hesitant steps that his shuffling boot soles sounded like the scuffing of lady’s slippers beside the clacking of her heels.

He followed her halfway to the fire.

If he had thought there was the least chance of her being susceptible to a joke, he would have protested that it might not have been his best work – that he had not used all the tools at his disposal – that it had only been a hurried job meant to hold until the work could be done properly – or something similarly droll.

But her back and neck were forbiddingly stiff as her hands worked their way down the clasps, and her head held so high he could almost see her nose.

He thought he would now recognize him on sight from behind.

Kuntigern had never seen Brass-​​Dog, but he thought he would now recognize him on sight from behind. He would not have been surprised had she turned and opened her cloak to reveal a suit of mail, a sword, a dagger – even a delicately chased silver fork at the ready, with gilded tines.

Instead she was entirely naked.

The fire behind her gilded her silhouette but made her white body seem almost dim, like a cloud before the sun. Kuntigern squinted dazedly into the light and made out a pair of trim little breasts whose nipples had the same defiant tilt as her nose, a long waist, the thumb-​​sized dimple of a navel, and then a series of lines and curves and shadows all converging at a mouse-​​colored triangular tuft between her legs.

Instead she was entirely naked.

No, she was not naked – she had legs, long and white and so slender that the firelight glowing around either side almost met across her shins, and at the end of them a pair of heavy, wood-​​soled riding boots, lined with the wool of black sheep, and criss-​​crossed by pink laces.

“Pink laces!” he squeaked. “I never would have guessed!”

She hugged herself beneath her breasts and giggled delightedly, seeming for a moment a charmingly awkward and naive little girl. Then she lifted her arms at her sides like an angel about to take flight and said rapturously – and somehow a little tragically – “You make me laugh!

She struck out first with her hip and strode towards him, clop-​​clopping like a man, but swaying as only women and reeds can sway.

She struck out first with her hip and strode towards him.

Her breasts swung slightly with every step and jumped as if startled at every crack of her heel, and for an instant there was nothing in the universe but Kuntigern and those impertinent little half-​​spheres.

Then it occurred to him that there were many other people in the universe, including a good number who lived and worked in this very street.

“Princess, wait!” he gasped.

'Princess, wait!'

She stopped.

“N-​​n-​​no – Princess, come here, come here!” he begged. “The windows!”

She trotted on tiptoes to his side, snickering, “The windows!” She swung her hip so close to his that his kilt swayed. “I shall make you curtains!

'I shall make you curtains!'

“So, no, it’s not only that, Princess,” he stammered. “There’s the door, too… Both doors!”

“Don’t your contrary doors have locks?

She stood on one toe and spun about with a scrape of her sole, then leaned back just until her shoulder blades brushed his bare chest. He tried to lean away to spare her soft skin the grime of his sweat, but that only pressed his groin against the unexpected swell of her behind.

'My necklace?'

“My necklace?” she prompted.

“Uh! Right!” he gasped. He glanced aside in search of his missing towel but decided he could likely manage the delicate work with his fingertips and avoid touching her neck.

He lifted the chain over her head and pulled it up around her throat, unintentionally dragging the pearl up between her breasts and onto her collarbone, making her shimmy and sigh. He gently pushed her braid aside with his little finger and picked at the clasp with his thumbnail. He did not remember it being so contrary the last time, nor his fingers so fat.

At last it clicked into place, and he let the necklace drop with a sigh of relief. But Estrid wriggled her shoulders to make it settle, thereby arching her back until her behind bumped firmly into his groin again. By now he was hard enough that he felt himself fit against its cleft in spite of the heavy wool of his kilt.


He gasped, “Princess – ” but he remembered that he could not push her away or turn her around until he had wiped off his hands. He backed away and looked desperately for something he could use. “The devil take that towel!” he wailed.

Estrid spun about to face him, giggling wickedly. “Perhaps the devil did!” she said. “That would be just like him!

For a moment he forgot everything else and simply laughed with her. “As if he knew!

Naughty devil!

She slid a hand around the small of his back and pulled his hips against hers, shoving his erection back down against his leg and scraping its sensitive head roughly across wool. It was shockingly erotic in spite of the brief discomfort, and he thought she must have felt it too, for her hips twitched away from his before settling gently again.

Naughty devil!

It amused him to drawl, “Careful, Princess…”

“Did I hurt you?” she whispered. “You must teach me.”

“Teach you!” he groaned.

He was becoming groggy with desire; he remembered there had been a painfully unpleasant conversation at some point in the morning, but he could not remember why it had bothered him so much at the time.

She grasped his wrist and pulled his hand up to her breast. He clenched it into a fist just in time and pleaded, “Wait now, let me clean off my hands at least – ”

“Oh, bother! It’s skin, it will wash.”

She twisted her fingers into his palm until he finally surrendered and opened his hand to let her press it flat over her breast. She was soft and warm as only a woman could be, and he told himself she had much to learn about men if she believed his hand could rival this.

He told himself had much to learn about men if she believed his hand could rival this.

He slid his other hand up the curve of her waist and closed it over her other breast.

“Good…” she breathed. She laid a hand over the back of his wrist and held it firmly for a moment before sliding her palm up to cover the back of his hand. Her skin was smooth and cool and noble, and a queasy sense of his own crudeness and clumsiness rose up in him again.


She worked her hand over his until she had pinched her nipple sharply between his thumb and the side of his finger. She squeezed, and he resisted.

“Harder,” she whispered.

“I know what I’m doing,” he snapped – not because he was offended, but because he was afraid.

Estrid fell against him, crushing their hands between their bodies, and sobbed into his shoulder, “Don’t be like that!”

'Don't be like that!'

He pulled their hands free and wrapped his arms around her to hold her own arms harmlessly against her sides. His kilt was uncomfortably heavy without being heavy enough, and he pressed himself tightly against her hip in search of some relief.

“Why should we fumble and pretend?” she whimpered. “I want to teach you everything about me. Why wouldn’t you want to know?”

“You’re killing me, Princess,” he pleaded.

He opened his eyes and looked blearily at the daylight that glared in the nook where he ate. Where they stood they could not have been seen from that window or any other, but it would only take someone who knew the trick of the door…

He opened his eyes and looked blearily at the daylight.

“Either that, or you’re going to get me killed.”

She giggled. “There’s always your hand if you’re afraid!”

“My hand!” he groaned. “You’re…”

He nearly said “mad”, but it occurred to him in time that the better word might have been simply “bold”. Perhaps in her family the mere risk of death was not enough to turn one aside from what one wanted to do. It certainly never had stopped Brass-​​Dog.

“…the craziest dream I ever had,” he sighed. “Pink laces! When I wake up, remind me never to eat pickles and milk before bed again.”

'...the craziest dream I ever had.'

“Pickles and milk!” she laughed. “Do you do that a lot?”

“Never again!”

“Are you certain about that?” She slid her hand down his belly and over his belt buckle to catch his erection as soon as she twisted her hips to the side. It struggled to spring up all the harder as she struggled to smooth it down.

“I’m not the man for you, Princess,” he croaked.

He had fled his home and native country the first time a torch had been pitched through his open window. Her brother burned rebellious ports and beheaded spies.

“I shall teach you how to be,” she murmured.

'I shall teach you how to be.'

Her husband had fought and won at Sky Hill. Kuntigern let Welsh secretaries give him black eyes.

“No, no,” he moaned, half-​​delirious with her insistent stroking. “You can’t teach a man to be worthy of you.”

Estrid rode miles across the snow to meet him, naked but for a cloak and a pair of burly riding boots with pink laces. He was afraid to meet her at all.

She whispered, “I elect you to be.”

She lifted both her arms and stood on her toes to wrap them around his shoulders.

She lifted both her arms and stood on her toes to wrap them around his shoulders.

The gesture disarmed him; the front of her body was pressed tightly against his from knees to shoulders, but the embrace was more warm than hot. He gently stroked her back with his grimy hands.

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing, Princess?” he sighed.

“No,” she mumbled into his shoulder. “I want you to teach me.”

'I want you to teach me.'