'How many hours before dark?'

“Joseph,” Irene asked, “how many hours before dark?”

Yusuf nudged his bag aside with his foot and leaned back to peer out the tall window.

“Not many. Two or three,” he said. “You can see how low the sun is already.”

“The sun is always low here, even at noon,” she sighed. “The days are so short in this country.”

“That is true. But you must admit,” he smiled, “it is convenient for Ramadan.”

'It is convenient for Ramadan.'

“Oh, indeed!” Irene laughed. She gave the back of his sleeve a friendly pat. “Then I am glad for you, Joseph. You must stay and break your fast with us.”

Yusuf gently took her wrist between his thumb and fingers and lifted it from her lap.

“I thank you, but I had every intention of staying here tonight. I am staying at Nothelm, remember? I could not have made it back before dark.”

“I remember, and I am very glad indeed! I get so tired after the sun sets, but I can sit up half the night if we have you here, Joseph, or other guests. Cannot I, Andronikos? I suppose I must simply find my own company tiring,” she concluded with a little laugh.

'I suppose I must simply find my own company tiring.'

Yusuf did not reply, but Irene was accustomed to the rituals of the sickroom, and she paused to let him finish counting.

“You are the only one who does, if it is so,” he said.

He replaced her hand on her lap and patted her shoulders. Immediately she lifted her hands to unclasp the brooches that fastened her shawl.

“I think it more likely the company of others is simply a good tonic,” he added. “No medicine in my bag is more effective a remedy than laughter.”

“Do you hear, Andronikos?” she asked. “I wish you could make a medicine of laughter, Joseph. I would swallow a big pot of it every morning and every night.”

'I wish you could make a medicine of laughter, Joseph.'

Yusuf was privileged to lift her shawl, but he was never able to do more than fold the softly-​knit web once or twice before Andronikos stepped up to take it away.

“You always tell me my medicine tastes bad,” Yusuf pointed out.

Irene raised a finger and declared, “I would pinch my nose and drink it anyway, if it made me laugh all day and night.”

“What we are describing is beginning to sound dangerously like wine, my lady.”

Irene laughed. Yusuf told himself that her voice sounded strong and clear, and that, after all, was what he was trying to determine.

He watched from on high as she unhooked the front of her cloak. The stiff cloth peeled back from her breast as she went, drooping under its own weight. Yusuf knew that it was releasing a dizzying breath of warm perfume, like a flower first opening, but he had nothing to do down at that height, and he simply clasped his hands behind his back and waited.

That, after all, was what he was trying to determine.

“Then I suppose I must take my laughter the ordinary way,” Irene said. “With my friends.”

Yusuf bowed without unclasping his hands. “It is what I advise.”

“Do you hear, Andronikos?” Irene asked. “Joseph says I should laugh with my friends.”

She stared across the room and waited for an answer. Andronikos bowed deeply, so that she could see he had moved. “I hear, Doukaina.”

'I hear, Doukaina.'

Irene frowned and fell silent as she fussed with the clasps beneath her breast. She only became clumsy when she tried to see what she was doing. Yusuf laced his fingers together behind his back to prevent them from darting out to her aid, but like Andronikos he watched closely for her moment of surrender. As soon as she lifted her eyes, Andronikos stepped forward to help her, but it was to Yusuf she looked.

“However,” she said, “that is not the only reason why I asked you how much daylight remained.”

“Is it not?”

“No, Joseph. There was a little girl hurt not far from here, and I wondered whether you would have the time today to see her.”

'There was a little girl hurt not far from here.'

Yusuf unclasped his hands and let his arms fall back to his sides. Andronikos did not look up from his gentle work of easing her arms out of her sleeves.

Yusuf asked, “A little girl?”

“Yes, a little runaway girl who fell from her horse and broke her leg, and crawled for help in the snow. Did you hear? Such a sad story.”

Andronikos pushed her cloak down around her hips, but before he stood he crossed the empty sleeves over her lap. Yusuf always imagined the gesture to be some mystical sign of warding, even if he also always assured himself it was only his own imagination.

He caught Andronikos’s eye as the servant stepped back to his usual respectful distance. In that moment Yusuf silently asked him what she knew and how she had learned, and Andronikos silently answered that he was not pleased. Yusuf supposed that it had something to do with the dreadful maids and stewards of the place.

Andronikos silently answered that he was not pleased.

“In fact, my lady,” Yusuf faltered, “I have already seen her today. The Duke sent me—I simply stopped here on my way back.”

He glanced at Andronikos to see whether he had already said too much. The eunuch’s face was respectfully expressionless.

“Oh!” Irene cried. “Then I am sorry I was so glad to see you come. I do not like to take my happiness in the sorrow of others.”

Yusuf gasped, “No!”

He wanted to tell her that she need not have felt sorry.

He wanted to tell her that she need not have felt sorry—that he would have come anyway—that he had gone to bed every night thinking he ought to come, and woken every morning thinking it was too soon—but Irene continued talking.

“How is she? At least tell me you were able to help her, and I shall be happy again.”

Did she mean happy again to have seen him come? Or simply happy again?

Did she mean happy again to have seen him come?

He pushed his bag out of the way and bent low behind her stool.

“The elves got to her before I did,” he said. “If her leg had ever truly been broken, I saw no sign of it.”

“Did the elves heal it?” Irene gasped.

“So she says.”

Yusuf tucked his hair behind his ear and gently leaned his head against her back. Irene straightened her shoulders and took a slow breath.

“She did have a—a—frostbite from the snow,” he faltered. “I do not know how to say it in Greek.”

'She did have a--a--frostbite.'

A frost bite,” Irene repeated in careful English. “If it is something from snow, I do not know how to say it either!”

She giggled, making her shoulders quiver against Yusuf’s cheek. He laid a hand on her back to steady her, and the light touch of his fingertips made her silky gown slip over a layer of fine cloth beneath, which itself clung to her warm skin and did not slide. For an instant, his blind touch through her clothes revealed to him the whole beauty of her woman’s body, as all his piecemeal knowledge of the splay of her ribs, the sponginess of her lungs, and the meaty weight of her heart never could.

“Breathe,” he reminded her.

Irene shifted her hips on her stool and straightened her shoulders again before taking another deep breath.

Frostbite is damage done when flesh is frozen and thawed,” Yusuf explained. “Have you ever seen what happens to frozen meat when it is thawed?”

'I think I have never seen frozen meat!'

“I think I have never seen frozen meat!” Irene giggled.

“Cough for me, please.”

She coughed, waited for him to slide his ear to the other side, and coughed again.

“When it thaws, some of the flesh melts with it, and if one cooks it, it is tough and does not taste the same. It is the same with living fingers and toes and ears. If they are allowed to freeze, they may be forever damaged.”

“Oh no! Andronikos!”

Yusuf looked up.

'Yusuf looked up.'

Irene had a habit of asking Andronikos to confirm her own statements or to admit that someone else had confirmed something she had said, as if she were perpetually afraid of being disbelieved by someone or other. This time, however, she had scarcely ventured so much as an opinion, and seemed more disappointed than dismayed.

“We may not know for months how well she will recover,” Yusuf continued. “The woman there is more familiar with frostbite than I, as she informed me at least a dozen times.”

Irene giggled weakly and said, “Poor Joseph!”

“The girl is already walking with help, but she cannot feel her fingertips, and that is what troubles me. A person may lose even healthy fingers and feet if he cannot feel them. It is so easy to injure oneself or burn oneself and not notice it.”

“Oh, no!” she whimpered. “Now I shall never dare go out into the snow.”

He clasped her shoulder and laughed, “Irene!” before recalling that he was there in the guise of her doctor, in her bed chamber; and that her shoulders were bare; and that he sometimes felt presumptuous even referring to her as his lady rather than Her Highness.

Her shoulders were bare.

To hide his confusion, he laid his other hand on the opposite shoulder and slid them both up her neck to the base of her jaw, as if he had meant to do so all along—even if it meant skipping several steps in their ritual.

“You may certainly go out into the snow if you dress warmly and take care,” he said. “I spent nearly all the day today and half of yesterday outside in the cold myself, and I still have all my limbs.”

She laughed, and the muscles of her throat pulsed beneath his fingers. “Do you hear, Andronikos?” she demanded. “Joseph says I may go out into the snow!”

“I hear, Doukaina.”

Yusuf slid his fingers out along her jawline in search of swelling. “Swallow,” he said.

She swallowed and gave him a moment to make a determination before asking, “Will you show me how to make a snow angel?


“What is a snow angel?” he asked. “Is it like a snow man?

“You do not know either?” Irene giggled. “We must have Father Faelan come to show us.”

“I only know of what my nephews and nieces call a snow ball fight.

“A snow ball fight!” she laughed. “I can imagine what that is!”

“As can I,” Andronikos glowered.

“Oh, no, I think Andronikos does not approve,” Irene whispered.

“It is merely a harmless game,” Yusuf explained to him, “in which hordes of small people band together to throw balls of snow at myself.”

'It is merely a harmless game.'

“In this case,” Andronikos said with a nod and a slight smile, “I approve.”

Irene laughed so gaily that Yusuf was able to laugh along with her, but he kept a wary eye on her servant’s enigmatic face. Andronikos was not one to joke, and perhaps never before at Yusuf’s expense. Yusuf could not decide whether it was a rare favor or rather an ominous sign.

Irene reached up and patted the back of Yusuf’s hand, tapping it flat upon her shoulder. Yusuf left it there; she was familiar enough with the ritual that she must have known what was coming next.

“Do not fear, Joseph,” she said. “I could not see to hit you in any case.”

'Nevertheless with my color I must stand out against the snow.'

“Nevertheless with my color I must stand out against the snow.”

He winced and glanced up at Andronikos. Surely he would be thinking how Yusuf’s brown hand stood out against the noble pallor of Irene’s skin—but the servant’s face gave no sign that he had seen, if it was so.

“But I would not throw snow at you,” she insisted.

“I would let you if it made you laugh,” he offered. “Good medicine.”

“Oh, in this case,” she giggled.

Yusuf took a deep breath of his own and slid his hand over the ridge of her collarbone and down onto the white expanse of her breast. His fingertips glided over wells of pulsing life, and he tried to see the dark-​inked diagrams of his books in the wispy web of veins that were only just visible beneath her skin.

“But Joseph,” she said.

'But Joseph.'

“Irene?” he asked, forgetting himself again.

In his head he named the bones and muscles of her chest—clavicle, pectoral, sternum, ribs—exactly identical in hers and his. He tried to ignore the thin layer of feminine softness that lay over hers and made all the difference.

“How am I today?” she asked. “Am I strong? I feel strong.”

“If you feel strong, I will not argue. You seem very well to me.”

He thought her heartbeat a little fast, but it was steady. Nor did he believe her pulse had been so quick when he had felt it in her wrist. It was only now that his hand lay over her heart…

It was only now that his hand lay over her heart...

Her heart, he reminded himself, was a heavy lump of meat in her chest, about the size of his fist, divided into four chambers, two above and two below.

“Well enough to go out into the snow?” she asked.

“We shall go out as soon as we have finished here,” he promised, “before it begins to get dark.”

“No, but, Joseph…”

She caught his wrist and clasped it for a moment, trapping his hand against her breast. He prayed God she could not feel his pulse through his heavy sleeve, or that she would not know it for what it was.

“Well enough to ride in the snow?” she asked. “If we are careful and warmly dressed?”

“I suppose…”

“Will you take us with you to Nothelm when you go tomorrow?”

Yusuf pulled his hand away and stood tall with the reflex of a child caught up to his elbow in a honey pot. The idea was absurd. Andronikos would never allow it.

Andronikos said nothing.

“I am invited,” Irene smiled. “I am not that sort of guest.”

“I know you are…” Yusuf faltered.

'I know you are...'

He remembered only then the recent events at Nothelm, and wondered whether she ought to be allowed to learn the entire story of her “little girl who was hurt.” On the other hand, he thought, her ears might be safer in gracious Hetty’s well-​run household than in this bazaar.

And he would see her every day… which was to say her doctor would. Nothing could be better for a lady of uncertain health.

But what would Andronikos think? What was Andronikos thinking?

“Perhaps we should ask Andronikos his opinion,” Yusuf suggested. “He sees you every day, as I do not.”

'Perhaps we should ask Andronikos his opinion.'

Andronikos immediately replied, “I am of your opinion, Doctor, whatever it may be.”

Yusuf could not believe it. Surely Andronikos simply thought he knew Yusuf’s opinion already, and happened to share it. But if he was wrong…

“I believe we might,” Yusuf said, watching Andronikos for the slightest reaction. “We can spend an extra day and stop along the way…”

“Do you see, Andronikos?” Irene said. “Joseph says we may go.”

“I see, Doukaina,” Andronikos bowed.

“Very good!” She clapped her hands as if to settle the entire affair. “Then let us finish in here, and we shall go out and see how we like the snow.”

She clapped her hands as if to settle the entire affair.

Yusuf brushed his hair back off his forehead and looked aimlessly around the narrow room. He knew he had not completed a full examination, but neither did he think she needed it.

“I believe we have finished in here already,” he said.

“No, we have not,” Irene corrected him. “You have not looked at my tongue yet.”

“Oh! You are right. One moment…”

Yusuf leaned behind her chair to find his stick in his bag, but Irene twisted herself around and caught him by the collar before he was halfway down.

“Look!” she cried. And then, like his impish nine-​year-​old niece, she crossed her eyes and stuck out her pink tongue at him. After an instant of astonishment Yusuf burst into breathless, intoxicating, dangerously wine-​like laughter.

“Do you see, Andronikos?” she announced. “I make the doctor take his own medicine.”

'Do you see, Andronikos?'