'No, no, no!'

“No, no, no!” Gwynn cried. “We’ve not even done dressing for bed yet!”

“What’s the matter?” Emma asked breezily as she strolled in after Margaret. “Afraid someone will see you in your nightgown?”

Margaret shot her a warning glare.

Margaret shot her a warning glare. She steadfastly refused to admit that Gwynn had sat down in her nightgown to sup with Young Aed, and if presented with proof, she intended to claim that any garment worn at table became, by definition, a dress.

“No!” Gwynn replied with an unusual, shaky shrillness. “Connie and I have not been thirty seconds alone together all evening, and now you show up!”

As she spoke, her outrage veered back to Margaret’s direction, and Margaret shrugged it off with a wave.

Margaret shrugged it off with a wave.

“You shall have to make an appointment with her, then, for I mean to see her first.”

She walked around the foot of the bed to find Condal cowering by the far window. 

“So what’s this I hear about you and Finn?”

Gwynn gasped, “Margaret!”


“What?” Margaret demanded. “Connie is already dressed for bed.”

Gwynn hesitated a moment between the opposing problems of the attentively listening maid and the girls who were closing in on her friend. Finally she ordered, “Leofgyth, you may go!” and bustled off without a backwards glance to waylay Emma.

Emma bolted and squealed triumphantly as she swung herself around the bedpost ahead of Gwynn. “So?” she asked Condal as she landed.

Condal turned slowly away from the window.

Condal turned slowly away from the window, as she likely felt obliged to do upon being addressed by a Princess, but Gwynn hastened to speak for her before she could so much as open her mouth.

“It does not mean anything if a boy puts up his cousin’s hair!” she warned. “They’re practically brother and sister! And he’s not truly an elf.” She pointed imperiously at the door as the maid pulled it shut. “That is how rumors get started, Meg!”

“We’re not talking about her hair, ninny-​​nanny!” Margaret groaned.

Emma said, “We are talking about the kiss.”

'We are talking about the kiss.'

Gwynn made a quavering wail behind her hands. Margaret endeavored to ignore her.

“Isn’t it true?” she asked Condal.

“Connie, darling!” Gwynn sobbed. “That knave! How dare he! Wait until my father hears of this!” she threatened.

Margaret smacked the bedpost in exasperation. Next Gwynn would be in hysterics or having the vapors or whatever she supposed fashionable maidens were supposed to do when scandalized. Margaret had no patience tonight for her sister’s theatrics – she was there to get the facts.

“Quit your squawking and let her talk!” she commanded. “Connie?”

At last Condal spoke, though her creaking voice was scarcely more than a whisper. “Was he telling you about it?”

'Was he telling you about it?'

“Conrad told me,” Margaret said. “Was it supposed to be a secret? I thought you two were to be sweethearts now.”

“You see? The kiss was mutual,” Emma said smugly to Gwynn.

Gwynn still held her hands theatrically over her mouth, but in spite of her panting, no further sounds came out. More strangely still, when Condal took a few halting steps towards her, shying between Emma and Margaret, Gwynn visibly backed away.

“What’s the matter?” Margaret asked. “Did he force you?”

'Did he force you?'

A troubling image of Egelric forcing himself on Maire resurfaced in her mind – this time overlaid by the image of Condal being forced by Finn.

But Condal roused herself at last to defend her cousin. “No, never! We were deciding to do it together. Cousin Finn was very polite and… very good…”

She looked pleadingly at Gwynn, but Gwynn was still trying to catch her breath behind her hands. Margaret thought it a little unfair, considering how Gwynn had been kissed by Cearball – and how often Gwynn had reminded everyone of the fact, in spite of growing evidence that Cearball was in fact in love with her friend.

“Just how good was he?” Emma purred.

'Just how good?'

Before Condal could begin to reply, Gwynn protested, “But you said he only fixed your hair!”

Condal whimpered, “I never said only!

“And just how did it get messed up?” Emma asked.

“Not like that!” Condal sobbed. “We never did that!”

Emma stepped back, startled. “Did what?”

“No lying down things…”

Gwynn croaked, and Emma lifted her head and smiled vaguely, as though the idea had given her another idea. Margaret decided the situation was getting out of hand.

Emma lifted her head and smiled.

“Listen, everyone,” she commanded. “Stop fooling around. Let’s simply have the facts. What happened, Connie?”

Condal sucked on her bottom lip for a moment, until Gwynn finally lowered her hands and looked her stonily in the face. 

“I… don’t know…” she admitted. “We were talking… I was waiting for you, like I promised,” she told Gwynn, “and I was worrying about the mistletoe, and how… some boys might try to kiss me tonight…” she whispered.

Margaret rolled her eyes and sighed. She herself had tired of dodging mistletoe this year long before even the season of Advent had ended.

“And so Cousin Finn was kind enough to kiss me before they could do it,” Condal concluded shakily. “So I could be having my first kiss with a boy I didn’t not like… and he could be having his first kiss with a girl he didn’t not like…”

“His first kiss?” Gwynn squeaked in a voice one octave higher than her normal tone. “He said it was his first kiss? I do not believe that for one second! Connie, you were tricked!”

'Oh, I don't know about that.'

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Margaret said.

Emma waved a dismissive hand at Gwynn. “Boys always pretend to have more experience than they truly do,” she said. “If he admitted it was his first kiss, it probably was. So how was it?” she begged Condal.

“It was very well done,” Condal said, for flustered as she obviously was, she simply could not fail to give anyone his due. “I was gawky at the first, but he… he helped me.”

'He helped me.'

For the first time the corners of her mouth turned up in a hesitant smile, and her glances darted between the faces of Margaret and Emma.

Emma was grinning eagerly, but Margaret felt strangely hot, strangely dizzy, strangely queasy. Her appetite for simple facts notwithstanding, she was briefly overwhelmed by memories of Conrad “helping her” when she had been clumsy – by echoes of the queerly mingled feelings of relief and fright at his mastery, even when she had been certain that they were learning together.

For a moment she had the sense that she knew exactly what Condal had felt and was feeling, and that smirking Emma and white-​​faced Gwynn did not.

“Sounds like he knew what he was doing after all,” Emma said approvingly.

“No no,” Condal protested. “He wouldn’t be lying to me. And the second one was better, quite as if he had learned from the first.”

“The second!” Emma crowed. “How many were there?”

Condal recoiled as though she thought she had said too much. 

Condal recoiled.

“Connie, how could you?” Gwynn squeaked.

“Oh, let her be!” Margaret groaned. “She never had a chance at the sort of kiss you and I had last week, so let her have one now! Goodness knows you’ve been holding it over us ever since!”

“Yes, but that was mistletoe,” Emma pointed out.

“I am not speaking of the kiss,” Gwynn insisted. Her weepy, squeaky voice had suddenly gone deep as a woman’s. Margaret sighed. It appeared the Second Act was beginning.

“Am I, Connie?” Gwynn whispered.

'Am I, Connie?'

Condal sucked on her upper lip, but there was no hiding the quivering of the corners of her mouth, nor the squinting of her eyes, nor the crumpling of her chin. Margaret snorted in frustration. She did not think poor sensitive Condal had learned not to take Gwynn’s theatrics to heart.

“You do not care for him – do you, Connie?”

Condal shook her head, but she protested weakly, “I do like him…”

“But you do not love him, do you?” Gwynn murmured. The phrase had none of the intonation of a question.

'Oh, lay off her!'

“Oh, lay off her!” Margaret cried. “What do you know about it? It’s plain to everyone they’ve always been fond of one another. He even calls her henny!”

I know all about it!” Gwynn said. “I know whom she does love. Don’t I, Connie?”

“But he isn’t loving me!” Condal sobbed.

“Who is it?” Emma begged, apparently no more affected by Condal’s distress than by Gwynn’s dramatics. “Cearball?”


Margaret groaned.

At last distracted from staring at Condal, Gwynn turned to Emma and snapped, “Certainly not!”

“Who then? Lugaid or Ferdie?” 


“Uh… the Captain!”


“Don’t be telling them who it isn’t,” Condal whimpered, “or what will you be saying when they’re guessing who it is?”

'Don't be telling them who it isn't.'

“Is it a married man?” Emma asked.

Gwynn clapped her hands to her temples in outrage. “No!”

“It doesn’t matter who it is!” Condal sobbed. “He isn’t loving me! He isn’t looking to love any girl!”

Emma cried triumphantly, “Saeward!”


Margaret smacked her arm to warn her, but fortunately Gwynn chose that moment to turn up her nose and scorn anything else the Princess had to say.

Unfortunately the nose was turned back to Condal.

“There you may err,” Gwynn said darkly. “How little faith in love you must have, Connie: to believe that if a man fails to kiss you once, it proves he does not love you at all. Didn’t I tell you it might have been only his great delicacy? Didn’t I tell you he might have had a more romantic first kiss already planned?”

Condal sniffed and wiped her hands over her cheeks. Margaret had not seen the tears, but she saw the brief sparkle of their dampness beneath her eyes.

“Perhaps he ate some garlic just before?” Emma suggested.

Gwynn could not reply to so unromantic an idea, but her scornful pause gave Margaret a chance to speak.

'Connie, do you like someone better than Finn?'

“Connie, do you like someone better than Finn?”

“Of course she does!” Gwynn said. “How could she love that abominable boy! The man she loves is a gracious, gentle – ”

“Will you please be quiet and let her talk?” Margaret shouted over her sister. “Connie?”

“But I don’t want to talk,” Condal whimpered. “Begging your pardon, my lady…” She made a little curtsey – quite as if her nightgown were a dress.

'She made a little curtsey.'

“You can talk to us, though, Connie,” Margaret assured her. “Did he – ”

Margaret shuddered again at her own thoughts. Of course the Finn she knew could not do such a thing… but a week before she would have said the same of the Egelric she thought she had known…

“Did he force you?” she asked softly.

“No, no!” Condal protested. Once again she seemed to find her strength in defending another. “He was very gentle and kind, and we had our first kisses together, just as we wanted.”

'He was very gentle and kind.'

Gwynn took a deep breath to prepare for the Third Act’s outrage, and Margaret hastened to stifle her drama her with bare facts.

“But didn’t he ask you to be his sweetheart?”

“Aye…” Condal admitted, somewhat regretfully it seemed.

“Then why did you say you would be? You needn’t be sweethearts simply because you practiced a kiss or two together.”

“That’s what mistletoe’s for!” Emma laughed.

'That's what mistletoe's for!'

“‘Twasn’t a mistletoe kiss,” Condal mumbled. “‘Twas a real kiss. I didn’t think how it would be.”

“So how was it?” Emma begged.

“Just like lovers,” Condal whispered, looking as miserable as Margaret had ever seen her. “I had to be his sweetheart. A girl can only kiss her lover like that, or else she’s a bad sort of girl.”

'Just like lovers.'

“That depends…” Margaret said uneasily.

Gwynn gasped, “Margaret!”

“On what sort of kiss it was, I mean. If it isn’t a real kiss – I mean, for instance, I don’t have to be Blocky’s sweetheart because of the way I kissed him one time.”

“But that was mistletoe,” Emma pointed out.

Condal shook her head sadly. “This was a real kiss.

“What kind of kiss, then?” Emma asked, with a brisk matter-​​of-​​factness of which Margaret could at last approve. “Did you have to take a breath in the middle?”

'Did you have to take a breath in the middle?'

Condal’s eyes went wide.

“Uh… more than ten seconds?” Emma asked.

Condal’s eyes did not narrow, but at least she nodded.

“More than thirty seconds?

Condal nodded again.

“How many seconds?” Emma laughed.

“I wasn’t counting…” Condal admitted.

'I wasn't counting...'

“Sounds real to me!” Emma giggled. “Did he put his tongue in your mouth?”

Gwynn squeaked, “Emma!”

“What? That’s how it’s done. Did he?”

“That is revolting!” Gwynn cried. “That is – very much like him!” she gasped. “Oh, Connie darling, did he?”

Condal shook her head firmly, her lips clamped tightly together as if to prevent any such intrusions in the future.

“Did he put his hand on your breast?” Emma asked.



Emma laughed wickedly at Gwynn’s shock. “What now, ninny-​​nanny? I hear some men are very interested in ladies’ breasts – or at least some ladies believe they are!”

Margaret was too flustered in the first seconds to come up with a distraction to save her sister. Was it so matter-​​of-​​fact as that? Was this what Conrad would want to try next?

“No, he never even tried!” Condal said.

“Listen!” Margaret blurted before Emma could come up with any more terrifying prospects. “It sounds like it was simply an ordinary kiss that went on for a little too long. I don’t think you have to be his sweetheart for that.”

'It sounds like it was simply an ordinary kiss.'

“But I already did say I was…” Condal said. Still, she looked hopefully from face to face.

“You certainly owe nothing to him,” Gwynn said stiffly. “I am certain he took advantage of your situation.”

“What situation?” Emma asked.

“Since he knew nobody else would kiss her.”

“I know lots of boys who would kiss her!” Emma protested. “Malcolm had to practically tie Cearball down to his chair! And you saw how early they had to leave!”

'And you saw how early they had to leave!'

Gwynn sucked in her breath.

Margaret knew that Emma’s claws were henceforth bared: she had already twisted her friend’s fingers almost backwards to get her to swear she would not taunt Gwynn about Cearball.

“Well, don’t you like Finn, Connie?” Margaret begged, forgetting in her haste that she had been attempting to extricate Condal from this new relationship.

“I do like him,” Condal admitted. “He’s the boy I don’t love whom I don’t not like the most.”

'I do like him.'

Margaret did not attempt to decipher this riddle and only hastened to assure her, “Anyway, everyone always said you were bound to marry him someday. It’s what your father would have wanted.”

“Yes, but that was before Egelric blackened the family name,” Emma pointed out.

Margaret turned to her in a silent snarl, but it was too late. Behind her Gwynn quavered, “What about Egelric?”

“Oh, don’t tell me you haven’t heard,” Emma smirked.

“Will you shut up?” Margaret growled.

'Will you shut up?'

“Why should I?” Emma asked. “Do you honestly think she isn’t going to find out?”

“Find out what?” Gwynn asked.

“It is just rumors,” Margaret snapped at Emma.

“Just rumors, eh?” Emma laughed. “I shall tell Saeward you called him a gossip! Egelric raped Maire,” she announced to Gwynn. “Why do you think they’re simply leaving her to stew in her room? They’re waiting to find out what Aengus is going to do about Egelric before they decide what to do about her.”

“Egelric did not rape anyone!” Margaret said.

“He admitted it!”

'He admitted it!'

“He did not admit to rape! He only admitted he lay with her! She came to his rooms!”

“Then how do you explain the bruises? Perhaps she was simply looking for the cat, and he grabbed her in the dark or something.”

“That is just rumor! That is just idle speculation!”

“Then precisely why did your father uninvite him for Christmas, if he’s so harmless and innocent?”

Margaret did not know precisely why. She only knew that when Saeward and Dunstan had gone to question him on the night of the murder, Egelric had said something to Dunstan that was likely to make him unwelcome at Nothelm for some time to come. Conrad refused to tell her what.

“But don’t worry, Connie,” Emma said, all gentleness and comfort now that she was satisfied she had bested Margaret. “Her father still likes Finn. Everyone likes Finn except for Gwynn, and now probably all the fellows who are in love with you. Egelric didn’t even raise him, so it’s not likely he’ll take after him.”

Margaret, meanwhile, realized she had lost track of the sister she had been trying to protect.

Margaret, meanwhile, realized she had lost track of her sister.

Gwynn had wandered halfway across the room by this time, shuffling silently on her bare feet, her parted hair hanging like dark curtains on either side of her face. Margaret squeezed past Condal and followed.

As she walked she tried to imagine what Hetty would have said to Gwynn in this situation – but she could not even guess which situation Gwynn was in. Was it about Condal and Finn? Was it about Cearball? Was it about tongues and breasts and bruises and rape?

She laid a tentative hand on Gwynn’s shoulder and whispered, “What’s the matter?”

'What's the matter?'

“I don’t feel very good,” Gwynn mumbled. “I think I had too much wine.”

Margaret let her head fall against Gwynn’s softly-​​flanneled shoulder and sighed in relief. “You and the Old Man are getting to be two of a kind.”

“And too much cake,” Gwynn added.

Margaret giggled. “You have a ways to go before you catch up to the Old Man with the cake.”

Gwynn did not laugh. “And too much pork,” she muttered. Her pretty lip curled slightly in disgust. “I am such a pig.”

“You are not!” Margaret gasped. She tried to hug her sister’s shoulders, but Gwynn squirmed away.

Gwynn squirmed away.

“Can’t we go home, Meg?” she whined. “I don’t feel good.”

Margaret sighed. “I don’t think you ought to ride if you’re sick, though.”

“I don’t care. I simply want to go home. Can’t we send for Father?”

Margaret was about to protest that Dunstan was in the castle and could have escorted them instead, but Gwynn added in a mumble, “Dunstan could go for him.”

Then she understood that their father was what Gwynn truly wanted.

She understood that what Gwynn truly wanted was their father.

For a moment their father was all Margaret wanted too. She wanted to be tucked in by her Papa again, and have her little song, and go to sleep safe from even the knowledge of such things as kisses and tongues and roving hands; and of strange, drunken men who leered at her sister’s body and perhaps at hers; and of adultery, and of bruises, and of rape.

But she did not want to see the look in her father’s eyes when he learned he had failed to keep her safe from all that knowledge. Margaret intended to pretend for as long as she could. Now she would have to help Gwynn pretend.

“Suppose I slept here with you instead?” she suggested. “We can send for Father if you get very very sick. And if you can’t sleep, we can talk if you like.” 

'Suppose I slept here with you instead?'

“What about Connie?” Gwynn mumbled.

“Connie can sleep with Em. You wouldn’t want to ask Connie to hold the basin for you if you get sick. There are some things even bosom friends can’t do.”

She gave Gwynn’s shoulder a companionable pat, but Gwynn turned towards her while her arm was raised, and before she knew it, Margaret was clenched in a hug.

“Would you do that?” Gwynn squeaked.

She squeezed so tightly at first that Margaret could only answer with a grunt. She found her sister’s body disturbingly womanlike even in this flannel gown. Margaret could feel Gwynn’s breasts pressed softly flat between them, as a number of young men must already have imagined them.

She whispered, “That’s what sisters are for.”

'That's what sisters are for.'