Colban sent the young Earl ahead.

It was a craven act, but Colban sent the young Earl ahead to knock and gain entry to the girls’ lair. Baldwin was afraid to talk to anyone, he reasoned, and a general fear was necessarily less grave than an acute dread of speaking to one person in particular.

“Good afternoon, Your Highness.”

Baldwin bowed to the wine-​​colored skirts that Colban recognized as his sister’s newest gown – the one which Emma had delighted in pointing out laced up the sides to allow for her expanding belly.

Then he bowed to the knees beyond, whose draperies Colban recognized as the ordinary, unexpandable dresses of Margaret and Gwynn. “Good afternoon, ladies.” 

Relieved, Colban stepped through the door – just as Baldwin bowed to his right and said, “Good afternoon, Lasrua.”

'Good afternoon, Lasrua.'

Trapped, Colban giggled at nothing at all.

“Hallo, boys!” Margaret said. “Oh! Em!”

“Afternoon,” Emma drawled from the doorway. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t call it good.” Colban heard her flap her skirts, rain-​​soaked in the front from having been draped over her saddle.


Britamund asked, “Does Eadie know you went out riding in the rain?”

“I have my cloak with the hood,” Emma protested. “And Drage and Stephan didn’t go out in the rain, and they’re sick…”

She pirouetted past the swinging door as she pushed it closed, swishing her damp hems against Britamund’s purple velvet.

“…therefore I went out into the rain to save my health!”

Lasrua settled her feet on the rug and flounced the rumples out of her skirt, preparing to stand. Colban flattened himself against the wall and imitated the paneling.

“Good gravy!” Britamund groaned. “Next you will observe that Drage and Stephan did eat their meat, and did go to bed on time – Kindly step off my skirt and let me up, chère sœur!

Baldwin cried, “Oops! Sorry!” and lifted one foot after the other.

“She said sœur, not sir,” Emma sighed.

“Oh! Sorry!” Overwhelmed by so many ladies rising at the same time, Baldwin feinted left and right, accomplishing nothing besides flinging droplets of rain across the rug from his soaking head. At last, surrounded, he shrank into a hunchbacked version of himself.

“Do you suppose it’s too wet to go out?” he quavered.

'Do you suppose it's too wet to go out?'

“No, it is not too wet!” Emma said. “Now ask her!”

She shot a snarling glance at Colban. Colban winked at her. Blackmailing one’s own sister was a cowardly deed, but he reasoned that it was for a noble – or at least imperative – cause.

He peeked past Baldwin’s shoulder at Gwynn. So far so good: she was making an effort not to look at him.

He peeked past Baldwin's shoulder at Gwynn.

“Well,” Baldwin mumbled, “Meg, Em wanted me to ask you – I mean, I wanted me to – to ask you…”

Colban risked a glance at Lasrua’s face. For the moment she stared over the children’s heads at Britamund, the corners of her mouth hinting at a smile in spite of the finger she pressed primly against her lips.

Britamund and Lasrua hinted and smiled over a great many things these days. Colban did not know what he thought of that.

Colban risked a glance at Lasrua's face.

“…whether you would kindly join us at Bernwald tonight,” Baldwin continued. “We mean to make masks for the Twelfth Night play. If my mother says we may.”

Margaret laughed. “Baldwin–you are going to be in the play?”

“Well… if I wear a mask, no one will know me, will they?”

After a moment’s stunned silence, they all laughed. Colban took the opportunity to reassure himself that Lasrua was not looking at him–

Lasrua was looking at him.

Only this time, Lasrua was looking at him.

She looked away as quickly as Colban, but this only proved she did not wish to be caught staring.

What did she think she saw? Was she trying to see his father’s face in his? Was she trying to see the face of the son she would have? She made Colban wish he looked more like his mother. He did not want to be a window onto other men.

He did not want to be a window onto other men.

Margaret said, “I shall go, only if you swear you’ll be in the play.”

“Do you think people will know me?” Baldwin whimpered.

Emma hooked her elbow in his and swung him around towards the door. “We shall make you such a fearsome mask that no one will ever dream it’s you.”

She sent Colban a last corrosive glare before the opening door blocked his view. A voluntary evening at Bernwald: she would make him pay, he knew. But he had been certain to find Margaret barring his route. It was Lasrua he had not counted on.

Why was he doing this, again? Ach, aye. Gwynn.

It was Lasrua he had not counted on.

Wait – why was he doing this, again?

“Can we make him be an animal?” Margaret asked.

Baldwin ventured, “I’ve always fancied being a lion…”

Emma groaned, “A lion? You?

Britamund assured him, “I think you would make a lovely lionish sort of animal, Baldwin.”

“Did you hear that?” Baldwin demanded of his companions as they retreated down the hall.

'A lion cub, that is.'

“A lion cub, that is,” Britamund added once they were gone. “A fuzzy little lion-​​kitten whose mama has licked his fur all crosswise up the back of his head.”

Gwynn giggled. “You make him sound almost cute.”

“Like Cubby, here.” Britamund swiped her hand up the back of her brother’s head and leapt onto the couch even before his damp hair had flopped back over his shoulders.

“Quit it!” he wailed. “I just combed that!”

“Ooooh!” Britamund cooed. “Anyone here you’re trying to impress? What brings you to Nothelm on such a miserable day? Or who?

The conversation was becoming entirely too pertinent, and furthermore the room was still entirely too crowded.

Colban forced his lips into a grin and laid his hand casually against the edge of the open door. He would get this over with.

'Good day, Lasrua!'

“Good day, Lasrua! I wasn’t expecting to see you in here. Not after I saw your father’s horse in the stable.”

“My… father’s?” She glanced over at Britamund.

“I could have sworn it was!” 

This, he would have pointed out, was not the same as swearing it.

Lasrua took a step towards the door. Colban leaned, swinging it invitingly wider. 

But Lasrua stopped and patted her braid. She asked Britamund, “Do you think he will mind about my hair?”

Britamund lifted her chin. “Send him to me if he does. It is not the fashion for a young lady our age to go about with her hair loose.”

Still, Lasrua hesitated. Colban could not risk her staying behind on so very feminine a principle as a matter of hair. Flattery to the rescue!

“I think it’s very pretty like that, Rua. I think you should go show him.”

'I think it's very pretty like that, Rua.'

Lasrua pressed her braid against her heart. “You do?”

He could almost hear her wondering: Was it a hairstyle Scotsmen liked? Was it a hairstyle his father liked? Colban did not even know what sort of hair his father liked best on a woman. “Short, dark, and curly,” his father would probably say.

She took another step, and though she stared at something far off, it was an easy matter for Colban to aim her at the door. He scarcely had to touch her.

'Verra fetchin.'

“Verra fetchin’,” he agreed in the most Malcolm-​​like burr he could muster in so few words. It was only fair: his father could stoke or smother his accent at will, according to what would most impress the girl.

“Thank you…”

“My pleasure!”

'My pleasure!'

Lasrua’s step grew firmer as she retreated down the hallway and her thoughts passed from Colban’s father on to her own. But she would not be long. Colban would have to make haste in dispatching his sister.

And when he turned back to her, he found a pair of eyes already narrowed in suspicion.

“I was not aware that you had taken up an interest in young ladies’ hairstyles.”

“Ach! I was only being polite. Isn’t that how it’s done?”

“Very fetching?”

'Isn't that how it's done?'

“Is that quaint?”

Gwynn sat back against her pillow and sighed. “Rua could put a wet mop on her head, and she would still be ravishingly beautiful. It’s so unfair that she has such gorgeous hair, too.”

Gwynn’s eyes were dreamy enough that Colban risked a proper stare. Girls were the most peculiar creatures: no matter how pretty they were, they always wanted to look like each other. Colban did sometimes wish he had Cedric’s nose, but that was justified by the undeniable ugliness of his own.

Britamund’s foot prodded his knee. “Psst! This is where a polite boy should tell Gwynn how pretty her hair is.”

“Ach, but Gwynn!” Colban blurted. “Your hair is so black and shiny! Just like a – ”

'Just like a--'

Quick – what was black and shiny?

“A beetle!” He winced.

Britamund laughed. “You should stick to ‘fetching,’ Cub.” She patted Gwynn’s wrist. “What he meant was: ‘dark and glossy as a raven’s breast.’”

“Ach, that’s what I meant! But seriously, Gwynn, why don’t you grow it as long as Rua’s? Your hair would be prettier than hers if you did.”

Gwynn turned her face aside, but curves and blushes and tremulous signs of pleasure shimmered over it – all this over nothing more than an honest, unrehearsed question! Why even bother laboring hours over a parchment dreaming up poetic compliments, as Cedric did?

Ach, Cedric! Cedric was going to kill him.

Britamund’s eyes narrowed. “Not bad, Your Slyness, provided Rua is out of earshot. But I advise you to save your double-​​edged compliments for the ladies you would impress at any price.” She peeked sideways out of her slitted eyes at Gwynn.

This conversation was so pertinent that it was becoming impertinent. It was an abominable act, lying to one’s sister, but Colban could not take any chances.

“Advice taken. So… what’s Dunstan doing out in the rain with his shirt off?”

Britamund’s eyes sprang wide. “What’s he what?

'What's he what?'

Colban put on his most innocent smile. “Doing with his shirt off out by the stables? In the pouring rain? I would have stopped to ask, but we wanted to get in out of the wet…”

Britamund crossed her arms over her lap and frowned. “Catching his death, sounds like.” But she made no sign of preparing to rise.

Colban shrugged. “Sounds like it. Cynan certainly seemed interested in the proceedings, though.”

That did it. Colban did not know whether there was any truth to Emma’s theories about Cynan, but it seemed she had at least shared them with their sister.

Britamund stood. “I shall just see about this. By the stable, you said?”

'By the stable, you said?'

“Somewhere thereabouts…”

But when Britamund turned for the door, the sight of her side laces stung him with guilt.

He mumbled, “Dress warmly, Your Dryness. It’s pouring down out there.”

“I shall take Dunstan’s coat, as well as my own! Men!” she sighed as she stepped through the doorway. “And he was complaining of a scratchy throat, too!”

“Ask Wulsy, if you don’t see him!” Colban called after her. He thought Wulsy would set the facts straight and get her out of the wet in the shortest time. Why was he doing this, again?

Ach, aye! Gwynn!


He had done it! In the same day he had gained a private interview with not one but two of the best-​​guarded young ladies of Lothere. He was a natural! Cedric worried himself sick wondering how he would catch even a glimpse of his beloved, while Colban simply had to make up his mind to do it!

Cedric was going to kill him!

Gwynn waited until the sound of Britamund’s steps had faded. Then she eased herself off of the couch and padded across the rug until her hems nearly brushed Colban’s toes.

She whispered, “Did you get in?”

She padded across the rug until her hems nearly brushed Colban's toes.

“Ach, did I get in? Of course I got in! I solemnly swore I would, did I no?” He did not know why he slipped into his father’s accent now, unless it was that it seemed the burr best suited for swaggering before a girl.

“Colban!” Gwynn leapt straight up and landed softly on the rug with a distracting bounce of her breasts. She clapped her hands between them, and Colban jerked back his head, fearing she had noticed him noticing.

“But first tell me,” she whispered, her face drawn and serious, “how is she? After the terrible shock she had?”

Colban had found Condal fit as a flea, assuming one meant a flea that had been confined to its bed for days on end. However, he found he rather enjoyed sharing a sober moment with a young lady who looked him so closely in the eyes… and who idly caressed her own cheek with the back of her finger in nervous anticipation…

'How is she?'

“Ach, well… She’s not what I’m calling canty… but she’ll recover, we’re thinking.”

“Thank the Lord,” Gwynn whispered, lowering her caressing finger to cross her heart. “And thank you, Colban, for bringing this good news to me.”

“Ach! My pleasure!” One corner of Colban’s lips tweaked up into an unrehearsed half-​​smile.

“And…” Gwynn’s attempts to maintain the solemn pout of her lips were foiled by a sneaking grin of her own. “Did you happen to see her alone?”

The other half of his mouth broke out of his control and snuck up to match the other. “It so happens that I happened to…”

Gwynn squealed, “Cubby!” – in her excitement forgetting even to call him by his Christian name. “And did you so happen to discharge the commission wherewith I entrusted you?


She did her Gwynn-​​like best to make her voice sound portentous, but there was no helping eyes so dark that the least bit of mischief sparkled in them like stars.

“I so did, m’lady.” He bowed his head, since she stood too near to bow at the waist.


She clapped her hands and danced on her pointed toes, and when that failed to satisfy her, she grabbed the front of his tunic and shook him. Shook him!

She grabbed the front of his tunic and shook him.

“Cubby! How can I ever thank you? I could almost kiss you!”

“You… could?”

Cedric was going to kill him!

“Almost! Oh, Cubby!”

She flung him off and gazed dreamily up at the ceiling. Colban shuffled after her. What had he done to make her grab him, exactly?

Colban shuffled after her.

“You must tell me everything, Cubby! Everything!

“Ach, everything? How do you do, Cousin Connie, and all that?”

Gwynn turned to him and tapped her fingers against her lips. Was that an invitation or was she only being thoughtful?

She leaned closer, fanning her fingers out over her collarbone – and out of the way?

“Simply tell me: What did she say when she saw it? Tell me precisely. What emotions flitted over her pale face?”

'What emotions flitted over her pale face?'

Surely a girl would not put herself within kissing range if she did not intend to be kissed. Was he supposed to go the rest of the way? He feared he was.

“Well – ”

Little remained of his voice but a raspy squeak. Was it impolite to clear one’s throat so close to a girl’s cheek? He compromised with a little cough.

“She was looking a wee bit famished, I’m not denying.” That sounded better. “But I warned you she wasn’t to have any sweets.”

Gwynn waved her hand in impatience. “I don’t care about the tart. I want to know her reaction. What did she say? How did she look at it?”

“As if she could gobble it up in one bite!”

Gwynn lifted her clasped hands against Colban’s chest and leaned. Colban found no better place to put his hands than on her shoulders. Cedric was going to kill him!

'Did she look at it with longing?'

“Did she look at it with longing?

“Aye, that she did!”

Gwynn moaned.

“But she ah… she told me she wasn’t allowed to eat it, and I said I might eat it for her and tell her how it was…”

Colban tipped back his head to keep a wary eye on Gwynn, but she merely hugged herself and sighed. Her mouth curved into a smile, but slight enough that her lips remained full and soft.

'And I told her 'twas a verra fine tart.'

“And I told her ’twas a verra fine tart. Almost fine enough to be its own reward…” 

Surely she expected him to kiss her. Surely the simple act of supplying her friend with pastry could not inspire such breathless passion in a girl. And Cedric was going to kill him anyway…

He whispered, “Almost…”

He closed his eyes, but he opened them again at once as Gwynn pulled away and the chill air of the room rushed between them.

“How can I ever thank you, Colban? You cannot begin to conceive how noble was the favor you have just granted our dear friend.”

'How can I ever thank you, Colban?'

“Ach, well, our dear friend already was thanking me…”

He took a step towards her, but Gwynn twirled away. How was he to get that close to her again? Was this one of the games girls played?

“Dear Connie!” Gwynn sighed. “How much easier will you rest tonight, even if you must cry yourself to sleep!”

That gave Colban a brilliant idea.

“Speaking of crying…” He yanked open his purse and fought to pry out the crumpled cloth without flinging half his bric-​​a-​​brac across the rug. “Here’s your handkerchief…”

He would hold it well back: she would have to creep quite close to take it. Perhaps he would even make her buy it with a kiss…

Gwynn turned to him with a snarl, and Colban staggered back in shock.

“My handkerchief?”

'My handkerchief?'

He had never heard such a complicated phrase pronounced through clenched teeth. He would have sworn it could not be done.

“You brought back that handkerchief?

Colban skittered backwards off the rug and smacked into the paneled wall. “Was that wrong?”

'Was that wrong?'

“You idiot! You fool! Give me that!” She tore the cloth out of his hand. “You were supposed to give her the handkerchief! The handkerchief!” She shook it in his face.

This was what Colban called laying it on a bit thick. He pressed his palms against the wall and pushed himself straight.

“The devil I was! You told me to give her the tart!”

“The tart that was wrapped in this handkerchief!

“Not a word were you saying to me about a handkerchief!”

'Not a word were you saying to me about a handkerchief!'

“That’s because you weren’t supposed to know about the handkerchief! Did Connie even see it?”

“I don’t know…”

“You don’t know! You don’t know! Oh! Get out!” She spun away on her toe and pressed the back of her hand to her forehead. “It is not to be borne!”

“Now hold on! Are you thinking they’re not giving Connie anything to wipe her poor nose with? She had a perfectly good handkerchief when I was there!”

“But who – who will dry her tears?” Gwynn moaned.

“Her own self! Or Cousin Malcolm! Or – hold on now! Just what sort of magical handkerchief is this?”

'Just what sort of magical handkerchief is this?'

It had been so unremarkable that already he had almost forgotten it: only a plain, soft square with no embroidery or lacy edging, with simple blue threads running through the weave.

“That’s a man’s handkerchief! Whose is it? Cearball’s?”

Gwynn turned back to him in a whirl of beetle-​​black hair. “No, it is not Cearball’s! The idea! That I should so wound her after the terrible shock she had!”

“Whose is it, then? Finn’s?”

Gwynn yowled like a barn cat with a tom on her back. “No, it is not Finn’s!

'No, it is not Finn's!'

Was this the silken-​​cheeked, softly smiling girl whose lips had come so very close to kissing his? This howling banshee?

“It had better be Finn’s,” Colban warned. “If it belongs to any man.”

“Well, it isn’t! So there! Now get out!”

“The devil it isn’t! Whose is it? She loves Finn!”

“Out, I said!”

'Out, I said!'

She was a pretty thing when she smiled, aye, but when she snarled she was monstrous as a wild sow. Had Finn ever realized what awaited him the day she met his teasing with something besides tears? Colban would have to warn him, if he ever returned to Lothere.

“Very well! I’m out! Good day, my dear lady.

He made a mocking bow as he swung about to grab the handle of the door.

'But promise me just one thing...'

“But promise me just one thing… Next time you have a delicate mission, for which you could almost kiss a boy, I wish you would ask my friend Cedric to do it!”

She growled and charged at him. Colban slipped through the door just as Gwynn hurled her curvy little body against it and slammed it shut.

Cedric could thank him later. Cedric would gladly endure Lady Gwynn’s abuse for a faint half-​​promise of an almost-​​kiss.

And if she spat him out half-​​chewed, it would only serve him right for liking girls.

Cedric could thank him later.