Yappy was yapping.

Not since Iylaine’s chestnut pony Blackie had any four-​​legged resident of Nothelm borne such an ill-​​fitting name. Yappy snored and snuffled, and he had an endearing habit of whining when he yawned, but on the whole he was the quietest puppy Margaret had ever known. If Yappy was yapping, it could mean only one thing.

“It appears my brother has arrived,” Britamund smiled.

'It appears my brother has arrived.'

Yappy scrambled for the door, clumsily yapping out of cadence with his thumping paws. Gwynn pulled her feet back across the rug to let him by, but she did not straighten her slouch in the slightest, even knowing that the Crown Prince was on his way. Of course Caedwulf was only Caedwulf… but Gwynn slouching!

Ogive grumbled, “If he isn’t late, then he’s early.”

Britamund squeezed her hand. “It simply means he’s eager to see you!”

“Oh, rot. It simply means he’s eager to get it over with.”

Yappy hurled his little body at the door, yapping and scrabbling with his front paws until he thumped down onto his haunches. Gwynn’s feet slid lazily back to their former places.

“Anyone else with him, Rua?” Margaret asked. She thought Gwynn might sit up for Sigefrith.

'Anyone else with him, Rua?'

“Emma is,” Lasrua assured her.

“But anyone else?”

“No, only they.”

Margaret rolled her head back into the crack between her pillows and sighed. Out in the corridor she heard Caedwulf’s loud laughter, a half-​​octave higher than his father’s.

“Somebody’s yappy to see me!” he announced as he clop-​​clopped to the door.

Margaret heard no clacking heels on Emma’s part, meaning the Princess had already traded her riding boots for slippers. She meant to stay the afternoon. Margaret flopped her head the other way and rolled her eyes.

Margaret flopped her head the other way and rolled her eyes.

The latch clanked, and Yappy’s yapping was abruptly muffled as he squeezed his fat body through the opening door and scampered out into the hall.

“So much for Hetty’s quiet time!” Ogive groaned.

“What?” Caedwulf beamed as he swaggered in, bearing the puppy high. “I’m just in time to save Hetty’s quiet time! Apply yapping mouth to neck, and… ahh!”

Yappy shivered and squeaked as he licked, but at last the yapping was silenced.

“I shall have to remember this trick next time Happy starts railing at me!”

Ogive kicked her skirts straight and rose majestically from the couch. “Try it and you’re likely to lose an earlobe.”

'Try it and you're likely to lose an earlobe.'

Caedwulf laughed at her before bowing around the room with the wriggling puppy apparently chomping on his earlobe already.

“Good afternoon, ladies tall and small and uniformly fair! I would kiss you all, but someone would be jealous, and I don’t mean this dog.”

Britamund sighed, “Oh, brother!”

“Oh, sister! Are you coming with us? May I fetch your cloak for you, Happy?” he asked Ogive over the puppy’s head. “Em rode in on your horse – she’s ready to go.”

Margaret looked up at Emma, who had just plopped herself down onto Ogive’s cushion. Her nose was lifted high and her face oddly vague, but all signs nevertheless pointed to her intention to stay the night.

Her nose was lifted high and her face oddly vague.

“I’m staying here,” Britamund said with an unconvincing sigh. “Dunstan doesn’t like me riding when I needn’t.”

“What?” Caedwulf demanded. “What nonsense! You’re a better horseman than he is, woman!”

“Yes, man, but if Dunstan falls he doesn’t risk injuring the baby.”

“No, but if he lands the wrong way he does risk injuring your future babies.”

Ogive winced. “Caedwulf!”


“Oops! Sorry ladies!” Caedwulf smirked at Gwynn and winked at Margaret. “Just a manner of speaking. Care for a ride, Gwynn?” he asked with an abrupt change in tone.

Margaret sat up to see what he might have noticed in her sister’s face or posture.

“No, thank you,” Gwynn replied. Now her smile and back were both unnaturally stiff.

“Certain?” Caedwulf wheedled. “I may let you hold Yappy part of the way…”

“Now I’m certain!” Gwynn affected a tinkling giggle. “Have a pleasant ride!”

'Have a pleasant ride!'

“I tried!” Caedwulf groaned into Yappy’s flapping-​​tongued face. “What about you, Rua?” he asked, holding up the puppy for inspection. “Tempted? No? Very well, very well,” he sighed as he opened the door. “Good day, ladies. And I shall tuck you down the front of my tunic,” he cooed, “and off we shall go.”

Ogive ducked beneath his arm and slipped out into the hall. “He’ll scratch your chest if you try that, Caedwulf.”

“But, Happy, I was talking to you!”

Britamund clapped her hand over her mouth and stared bug-​​eyed across the room at Lasrua. Caedwulf pulled the door shut behind him, but even then Ogive could faintly be heard to declare, “And I would claw you to ribbons!”

Britamund slapped her hand down on her knee and burst into laughter.

Britamund slapped her hand down on her knee and burst into laughter.

“I shall never again be able to keep a straight face around those two – thanks to you!”

She pretended to glare across the room. Margaret lifted her head to see Lasrua rocking idly on her cushion, looking sly.

'What did Rua do?'

“What did Rua do?” she asked.

“Only made an observation so obvious I should have noticed it before!” Britamund giggled. “Simply imagine Yappy in a diaper and bonnet, and we have before us a glimpse of what those two will look like a few years hence: Papa Caedwulf stomping in to sweep up Baby and cover him with kisses, and poor harried Mama Ogive rolling her eyes!”

Margaret repeated, “Papa Caedwulf,” and grimaced at the strangeness of the idea. “And I thought Papa Dunstan was hard to swallow.”

She looked up, worried that Emma would find some way to crudely twist her words before Gwynn, but Emma was smiling dreamily at something on high.

Emma was smiling dreamily at something on high.

“Now now,” Britamund said with the smugness of a new mother-​​to-​​be, “unlikely as it may seem, our brothers will all be Papas by and by.”

“Papa Old Man,” Margaret snickered. She knew her little brother would one day be a “bearded patriarch” at last, but in her imagination he somehow still had the short curls and whining voice of a ten-​​year-​​old, clinging progeny notwithstanding.

“And so shall you be Mamas,” Britamund told Margaret and Emma, smirking as if she expected it to be taken as an outrage.

Margaret snorted, but Emma was unmoved. Then Britamund’s voice changed as Caedwulf’s had a moment earlier, and she said, “We all shall.”

Margaret glanced reflexively at Gwynn, but Britamund was looking at Lasrua. Lasrua turned her face aside.

Lasrua turned her face away.

Margaret was sorely tempted to flop back onto her pillows and sleep until supper, and let the miserable occupy themselves with their own misery. Nearly everyone in the castle needed to be treated with special care these days, from her anguished father on down to David with his fever. It seemed to Margaret that only she, Britamund, and Dunstan ever made an effort to lighten the mood.

Margaret would have wished David’s fever on herself in the hope of getting some rest and a little coddling of her own, but that would have meant more worries for her father. Therefore she stayed out of drafts, wore her scarf and gloves outdoors, and soldiered on. But she would not allow anyone to come into her home and make matters worse than they already were.

She turned on her best friend and demanded savagely, “And what about you, Em? Just why are you sitting there smirking like the cat who got the cream?”

'And what about you, Em?'

Emma, it seemed, had been waiting for precisely this opportunity, for her cheeks flushed pink as roses and she chirped, “Because I got the cream!”

Margaret sat back, startled. It was just the sort of comment that Emma would have twisted into something shocking if they had been giggling together in private. Surely she did not mean…

“Why?” Emma cooed. “Do I still have some on my whiskers?” She took out her handkerchief and daintily dabbed at her mouth. Surely she did not mean…

“What did you do now?” Britamund asked uneasily.

'What did you do now?'

Emma stuffed her wad of lace back into her purse and hopped up to curtsey at her sister and prance onto the rug. She had waited in silence until she could be the center of attention, and now she could begin her show.

I have merely come into possession of the juiciest bit of gossip in Lothere since Gwynn got her first erotic kiss. Utterly secret.”

Margaret tried to warn her with a scowl, but Emma’s chosen audience was seated on the couch.

“If it is so utterly secret,” Britamund asked, awkwardly or half-​​heartedly trying to change the subject, “how did eleven-​​year-​​old you find out about it?”

'How did eleven-year-old you find out about it?'

Emma tossed her head, annoyed as ever to be reminded of her age. “Straight from our horse-​​faced brother’s mouth, that’s how.”

At last Gwynn – poor, scrupulously fair, kind-​​hearted Gwynn! – was roused to protest, “Caedwulf does not have a – shall we say–equine profile, meaning horse-​​like.”

“Not Caedwulf, ninny-​​nanny–meaning goat-​​like,” she added in a snickering aside to Margaret. “My other brother. Cubby.”

“Oh.” Gwynn fell back against her cushions, too scrupulous to comment on Colban’s profile, which even she knew unfairly won.

Emma tossed back her hair and announced, “I know what happened to Connie. And I thought you girls would like to know.”

'And I thought you girls would like to know.'

Margaret’s stomach sank. Conrad had been on the job since the day before, when Joseph had been urgently summoned to Malcolm’s house, but he had only managed to determine that Condal had suddenly taken ill and could not receive visitors, and that Cearball had left that very morning in the company of one of the King’s Scottish messengers, the latter of whom bore a long-​​postponed letter from Sigefrith to Lord Colban.

Conrad’s personal theory was that Condal was now confined to Cearball’s former bed as a result of the two of them having been surprised in it by Malcolm, and that Cearball was now on his way to demand pardon of her cousin and offer to save her from dishonor. Margaret had refused to believe it, but Emma’s wicked delight in the affair was an ominous sign.

'Is she very ill?'

“Is she very ill?” Gwynn quavered.

“Dreadfully! She cannot leave her bed, and is not permitted any visitors but family, and even Iylaine mayn’t speak anything but Gaelic with her. But it’s worse than that! Wait till you hear how it happened! Yesterday Malcolm showed up at Aengus’s gate and invited himself to dinner without the barest by-​​your-​​leave.”

Ever a show-​​woman, Emma planted her fist on her hip and bent her knees, squatting over an imaginary chair.

“And he sat down at the same table as Aengus, even though his father-​​in-​​law practically murdered Aengus’s wife. And at the same table as Paul! For the first time since Paul has come to live among the men!”

'For the first time since Paul has come to live among the men!'

She tossed her hair back over one shoulder and eagerly studied Lasrua’s face for signs of shock or dismay. Lasrua’s stony majesty stood firm.

“And do you know why? It was only so that he could steal Connie away afterwards. He told Connie that they were going to take a ride up to Young Sigefrith’s, and Connie could look at Sigefrith’s picture books while Malcolm took care of some business.”

Margaret winced. Until that moment she had only worried about Gwynn’s reaction, but now she felt sick for Condal’s sake as well. Poor, simple-​​hearted Condal! How Margaret and Emma had privately mocked her for her “nanimal book,” and her “real kiss” with “a boy she didn’t not like,” and all her childish modesty that had made them feel so knowingly superior to her. But if bad things could happen to good girls, Margaret wondered what fate was reserved for the wicked.

“But it was a lie!” Emma declared. “He took her home instead, after making Warty go out with the children so he could leave Connie and Cearball alone!

“Emma!” Britamund cried. “That cannot possibly be true! Either you’re exaggerating, or Cubby was, or – ”

'He could leave Connie and Cearball alone!'

“Not alone alone!” Emma groaned. “I simply mean Malcolm left them alone in the hall while he and Iylaine were in the other room. And that was so that Connie would have to listen to Cearball and couldn’t run away. And that,” she said triumphantly, “was so that Cearball could ask her to marry him!”

Emma knew how to time her pauses. The mood that Margaret and Britamund had labored all afternoon to keep light was now as smothering as a steamy, soaking-​​wet towel. Gwynn settled back into the crack between the cushions: slouching, drooping, utterly disregarding her precious posture. Even her glossy hair hung lank over her face and made her appear wilted and sad.

She appeared wilted and sad.

“And do you know what she said?” Emma purred, looking as if she might need to pull out her handkerchief to blot her whiskers again.

“No?” Margaret guessed, determined to get to the end of the story as quickly as possible.

“Nothing!” Emma squealed. “She simply threw up all down the front of him and fainted dead away!”

'She simply threw up all down the front of him and fainted dead away!'

Emma made another pause, but this time she appeared to have miscalculated its effect. After a moment of awkward silence, she turned to grin at Margaret. When that failed, she lowered herself to explaining her own joke, laughing, “Can you imagine? Cearball finally works up the nerve to propose to Connie, and she pukes on him!

She turned back to Gwynn, doubtlessly hoping at least to be corrected for her vulgar choice of words, if not to witness Gwynn dashing out in tears.

She turned back to Gwynn.

That was what it was all about, Margaret thought. Over a week ago Gwynn had confided to Margaret that she no longer cared for Cearball, but Emma did not know that, and so she continued twisting that screw. Emma had a Finn-​​like fascination with making Gwynn cry – Gwynn, who so far as Margaret knew had never been deliberately cruel in her life. Such was the fate reserved for the stubbornly, stupidly good.

That was what it was all about, Margaret thought.

Lasrua spoke up suddenly, murmuring, “I hope she will soon be well.”

Emma turned to her in surprise.

“Emma,” Britamund scolded, “how can you laugh at our friend’s illness so?”

“I’m not laughing at Connie’s illness,” Emma groaned in exasperation. “I’m laughing at Cearball! Can’t you picture it? How humiliating! ‘Connie, will you be my bride?’ ‘Blearrrrgh!’”


Margaret pointed out, “David threw up on Irene, and she wasn’t humiliated.”

“Yes, but David’s sick! And a baby!

“So? Connie’s sick too. She probably has the same thing.”

“And Irene didn’t ask David to marry her!

“And if Cearball truly cares for her then he won’t mind.”

“That’s so true!” Britamund smiled dreamily. “I was sick all over Dunstan’s boots, and he simply stepped right out of them and helped me to lie down. That’s love!”

'That's love!'

“Tell me you’re kidding me!” Emma wailed. “And next Gwynn will be moaning, ‘Sooo romantic! I cannot wait till I may puke on a man!’”

She turned to Gwynn, eagerly awaiting her reaction. That did it. Margaret flopped forward onto her knees and scrambled up.

“It is romantic in a way!” she protested. “Think about it! Malcolm swallowed his pride and went straight to Aengus’s door, and sat down with him – and sat down with Paul, after all these months – just to help bring Cearball and Connie together at last. And you know Malcolm has always tried to keep them apart, which means Cearball must have made such a heartfelt plea that even Malcolm was moved!”

'Cearball must have made such a heartfelt plea that even Malcolm was moved!'

“And then he repeated it to Connie and she puked – Blearrrrgh!”

“Everyone knows that delicate ladies will faint if they are greatly moved,” Margaret insisted, though she had always laughed scornfully at Gwynn’s insistence of the same.

“And puke.”

“Connie simply happened to be coming down with a fever at the same time. If he cares about her he won’t mind, and if he doesn’t then good riddance.”

'If he doesn't then good riddance.'

She tweaked Emma’s nose as she strode past her to the couch, and flopped herself down onto the edge of a cushion. She picked up her sister’s limp arm and wrapped it around her waist before wriggling back to sit beside her. Gwynn’s body teetered over towards the depression she made, until at last she slumped against Margaret’s side.

'What about you, Slouchy?'

“What about you, Slouchy?” Margaret teased. “Don’t tell me you’re coming down with a fever, too.”

Suddenly she wondered whether that might not be the simple cause of her sister’s strange lethargy of the last few days. It was nothing a little bed rest and Hetty’s German potions could not cure! She pushed back Gwynn’s hair and kissed her forehead.

“Hmm! You do feel a little warm…”

“I don’t know about that,” Gwynn mumbled drowsily, snuggling herself closer. “But if any man asks me to marry him today, I think I shall… I shall…” She took a deep breath before concluding in an experimental whisper, “…likely puke.”

'I think I shall... likely puke.'