She gasped and drew back her hand.


Ogive gasped and drew back her hand. She had scarcely finished rapping.

“Uh… Sigefrith?”

Who else would it be, stupid?

“Uh… it’s Ogive! If you’re not – ”

She heard a thump and a scrape, and then a series of thuds rapidly approaching. The door cracked open and Sigefrith’s head poked through, at a level slightly below her own, as if the King turned into a dwarf – relatively speaking – after midnight.

She was so discomposed by this thought that she only stared at him like an idiot. His own eyes were wide.

His head slid up a few inches until he was as tall as she. He whispered, “What’s the matter?”


He opened the door and regained his usual height. “Are you ill?”

“Uh… no.”

“Then what – ”

Ogive thrust her parchment up beneath his nose. Sigefrith pinched it away from her and lowered it within the range of his aging eyes and the glow of her candle.

“What’s this?” he asked. “A notice of eviction?”

'What's this?'

Now that his voice had regained its usual grumbling baritone, she recognized the fear in its shrill note of before.

“Why, no!” She laughed stupidly. “I would like you to read it over, if you aren’t too busy…”

“Ah! ‘To Her Most Gracious Majesty, Queen Margaret of the Scots!’” Sigefrith slipped his arm behind Ogive and scooted her into his study. “You want me to read your letter.”

“If you are not too busy!”

He pulled the door closed behind her and took her candle. “Nonsense! This has just become my most urgent business. Shall we go into the next room? I could make a fire.”

“No, no, I don’t mind the cold!”

'No, no, I don't mind the cold!'

She did find the room shockingly frigid, now that she thought about it. But she never did think about such things before blurting her self-​​effacing answers.

Sigefrith tossed her letter onto his table. It was already strewn with squares of scribbled parchment, and his inkwell was uncapped and his quill at the ready. He had not been dozing off when she had knocked.

“But what are you doing awake at this hour, honey?” he asked. “It’s after midnight. Doesn’t your room suit you?”

“It is certainly fine enough for me, Sigefrith. But you know, I would often retire after midnight if it were up to me. I do not need much sleep. It is simply that I wish to conserve candles.”

Sigefrith chuckled and lifted her little tallow candle to her in an ironic salute. “Well, you are certainly invited to burn all the candles you like in this house, after my own example.”

He set the candle on a side table, beside an elaborate silver candelabrum topped with candles of pure wax. Ogive could almost hear her father barking at the extravagance.

Sigefrith pulled out a chair for her and bowed. “Only promise me that your late hours will not deprive us of your company at breakfast in the morning.”

Ogive sat, stiff-​​backed as the wooden chair.

'Certainly not!'

“Certainly not! Late to bed and late to rise! And of what further dissipation shall I next be accused?”

Sigefrith closed a book that lay open on his table and set it on his high shelf. Ogive recognized the embroidered binding, and a gossamer question flitted through her mind: what was Sigefrith doing with the Queen’s Psalter?

'Sigefrith turned and reached towards his high shelf.'

But Sigefrith’s wry answer blasted away all thoughts of that. “I supposed you must have picked up a few dissipated habits at Nothelm.”

Ogive sniffed. “Indeed not. My habits are strictly my own, and do not alter, except for reasons of courtesy to my hosts and friends.”

“Well, then, perhaps you will do your dissipated host the courtesy of joining him in a cup of wine?”

Sigefrith took down an empty goblet and tipped it towards her, twirling it by its stem. The candlelight rippled over the faint dings and depressions in its burnished surface, and for a moment Ogive was spellbound: it glowed like a magical chalice.

Then prosaic Sigefrith plunked the goblet down on the edge of his table and hefted the pitcher. “It’ll be cold as a nun’s – cold as ice by now. You don’t mind? I can send for someone to warm it.”

'You don't mind?'

“I don’t mind a bit. We shall warm it after we drink it, rather than before!”

Sigefrith laughed and poured a rill of dark wine into her cup. “I daresay it will return the favor before long.”

He handed her the goblet and reached for his own. He misjudged its weight and sloshed a few drops of wine onto the table.

“Damn!” He slid a parchment out of the way and blotted up the spill with an ink-​​spattered rag. “I do that all the time. Ah… not spilling my wine, I mean.” He flashed her a sheepish grin. “Taking three sips and forgetting all about my cup for the rest of the night.”

“That is perhaps just as well, Sigefrith. As many hours as you spend in here at night, if you drank wine at a steady rate, I shudder to think of the letters you would write.”

He smiled wryly, but he gave a serious reply.

'I need the quiet.'

“I need the quiet. Being the last man awake is the only way I’ve ever found to get it.”

Ogive nearly crowed that she too needed quiet – as if sharing this particular characteristic with him was proof of some special bond. Fortunately she caught herself in time.

“Oh – I’m sorry! You mustn’t like to be disturbed.” She started to rise but fumbled with her cup, unsure where to set it, unsure whether to drink it first. “If you had mentioned it to me… I knew you retired late…”

Sigefrith laughed. “Nonsense! In no wise do you disturb my peace.”

He sat on the edge of his chair, effectively blocking her escape route with his knees.

He sat on the edge of his chair.

“On the contrary, I am delighted to spend the midnight hour with a fellow owl.”

He reached back and picked up his goblet. Ogive lifted her cup almost to his, waiting to hear what he would say so that she could follow his lead. But instead of drinking to her health, Sigefrith only opened wide his eyes and hooted, “Hoooo-​​ooh!”

Ogive laughed. He tapped his cup against hers and took a swallow of his wine before she had a chance to respond in kind. It was just as well – she doubted she would know how to make a convincing owl. She resolved to practice later in her room.

“So!” Sigefrith swiveled to face his table and clunked down his cup. “Lady Ogive, Mistress High Owl of Lothere, to the Queen of Scots, Greetings!”

Sigefrith clunked down his cup and swiveled to face his table.

He cracked his knuckles and leaned over the parchment. Ogive sipped her wine, still giggling stupidly over the owl business, but she soon realized Sigefrith was quite serious. Whatever he would think of her letter, he was not merely feigning an interest to indulge her. He would read it as a diplomat and give her his diplomat’s opinion.

Ogive took another sip of wine, too slight to chill any farther than her tongue on its way down. Then she studied her reflection in its black mirror and wondered what Caedwulf would have done with her letter.

She studied her reflection in its black mirror.

She supposed he would have glanced at it on his way out the door, pronounced it “Simply cracking, Happy!” and handed it back to her all but unread. He sometimes asked for her opinion, but seemed not to believe she had any use for his own.

Sigefrith’s leg began to bounce beneath the table. A few lines later it stopped abruptly. Was this a bad sign?

Sigefrith's leg began to bounce beneath the table.

Ogive sought courage in a gulp of wine, but she shivered at its icy trickle down her throat. She had imagined Queen Margaret reading her letter, and had been smugly confident that it would be well-​​received. But she realized now she should have written to the standards of Sigefrith’s eyes. Her every phrase now seemed horrifically stupid. Was that why he was taking so long? Was he trying to find a gentle way to tell her it would not do?

She took another sip of wine, and this time it seemed almost warm.

At last he grabbed his wine and turned back to her. “An excellent first letter!” He tipped the rim of his cup towards her, dazzling her again with its light. “Personal without pretending intimacy, feminine without being silly; and you provide a half-​​dozen openings for her to reply without ever obliging her to do so.”

He drank a swallow of wine and set down his goblet. Ogive followed his example. A sudden dizzy flush hinted that she had had enough.

Ogive followed his example.

“There’s only one thing I would recommend,” Sigefrith said. “One cannot be too pious with Margaret – provided one does it convincingly, which I know better than to try.”

He winked at her, but Ogive could not help glancing up at the row of books behind which the Queen’s Psalter had disappeared. Sigefrith seemed to notice her wayward gaze, but he did not acknowledge it.

“Of course she corresponds with Eadie, but I suspect she will be delighted to have a literate young lady with whom to trade letters. You did well to mention your education in the convent – I simply think you could lean a little more in the direction of the convent and a little less in the direction of the education, and it would not be amiss.”

He tacked his hand through the air, right and left, and smiled gently at her, but Ogive could only splutter with embarrassment. “Oh, how stupid of me! I should have thought – ”

'Oh, how stupid of me!'

“No, no…”

“ – I shall write it over! It’s very good advice!”

Sigefrith laughed. “It’s an excellent letter, I said! All it lacks is a little extra ballast fore and aft. A pious greeting in the address on the outside; and you have enough space at the end to add a prayerful postscriptum. No need to take out all the cargo and load it back in.”

'No need to take all the cargo out and load it back in.'

He reached back as if to grab the letter and make the necessary amendments himself, but he only picked up his cup again. Ogive hastened to do the same so that she would have something to do with her face besides blush.

After taking a sip, Sigefrith rolled his cup between his hands and stared thoughtfully into his wine. “That’s the most important part of a letter anyway, honey. The beginning and the end – that’s what stays in a person’s mind. One must decide how one wants the recipient to think or feel, and put the right words at the beginning and end. Then one can put whatever one wants in the middle. One can pass a frightening lot of bad news in that way.”

Ogive nodded solemnly.

Ogive nodded solemnly.

Sigefrith looked up at her and grinned. “Now that was good advice.”

She laughed.

“And now that I’ve dispensed my own, I should like to have yours.”


He sat back and lifted a folded parchment. “When you arrived I was just making up my mind how to address this letter – and had been for the last half hour. Now I shall have your help.”

'Now I shall have your help.'

Ogive was too stunned to repeat her question, so she drank another gulp of wine. The icy liquid did nothing to cool the warmth that was spreading through her belly.

“It’s my first letter to Eirik since the Feast Day of Flannan, henceforth of evil omen. And it is – or will be – or may be – the first letter I’ve addressed to him outright as Earl. So tell me, honey… Dare I?”

Ogive sternly told herself that it was no use being astounded he had asked her, since he had. The only thing to do was to get down to business.

“What sort of letter is it? The bothersome middle part, that is.”

'What sort of letter is it?'

Sigefrith smiled. “An astute first question. I merely enquire about a friend. Eirik may have news of him. The letter itself is of little consequence.” His smile slanted into a crafty grin. “But that’s your point, isn’t it?”

“Indeed. I consider that if you intend to do it someday, you might wish to do it when addressing a letter of little consequence.”

He sat back and looked bemused. “Why do you suppose, honey?”

'Why do you suppose, honey?'

“In the first place, Sigefrith, such a letter stands a lesser chance of being delivered to Eirik at all. More importantly, however, there will be no confusion about the message you wish to send with such an address. Since you ask a trivial favor, and one that does not interfere with Whitehand’s authority, it will be evident that the ‘Earl’ is not meant to flatter Eirik, but merely to recognize a fact.”

Sigefrith bowed his head.

“And besides…” Ogive indulged herself in a sly smile. “Is there not some rule of diplomacy that advises us to deal our adversaries no more than a single affront at a time?”

'Is there not some rule of diplomacy?'

Sigefrith laughed and turned to his table. “I have always believed that rule applied to husbands trying not to exasperate their wives, but you may be right.”

He wiped his pen, and Ogive panicked. “You’re not about to write it because I told you to, are you?”

Sigefrith dipped his pen in the inkwell. “Why not? It was good advice.”

“But – Sigefrith!”


He began to write. Ogive imagined the worst possible scenarios: Eirik being captured and executed… Whitehand declaring war against Lothere… treachery… rebellion… assassination…

“Sigefrith! You can’t!”

“… R… L. Voilà.” Sigefrith sat back with a satisfied sigh and wiped the ink from his pen. “God blind me if I didn’t give the runt the idea in the first place. Ah… begging my lady’s pardon.”

“Sigefrith, please tell me you didn’t do that because of what I said. I’m not accustomed to… to…”

'I'm not accustomed to...'

She nearly said “ruling.” It seemed so presumptuous… and yet she would have to learn.

Sigefrith turned back to her, suddenly grave. “Honey, I didn’t do that because of what you said. Every day I ask the advice of men – and ladies – I trust and respect. And if they agree with me, I am reassured, and if they disagree, then I often consider the matter at greater length. But my decisions, like your habits, are strictly my own.”

'My decisions, like your habits, are strictly my own.'

He smiled, and Ogive was comforted enough to smile in return. But she shivered from more than the cold.

Sigefrith scooted his chair around and turned towards the door, as if he meant to rise. Ogive slid to the edge of her chair and panicked at the apparent knee-​​weakening effects of the wine. But Sigefrith simply lifted one leg after the other and plunked his heels on the side table, blocking her path entirely.

Sigefrith plunked his heels on the side table.

“I had almost made up my mind to do it when you came,” he mused. “I supposed I was bound to do it someday. There’s another rule of diplomacy that says a man who knows he’ll be bound to do something someday had better do it before he’s bound. And now and then do something for the sole sake of doing something. Men who simply react to events don’t get stronger. Might is like water. It always flows down unless one expends some labor to move it uphill.”

He swirled his wine around in his cup, perhaps studying how he could make it rise along the sides of the goblet with that small labor.

“If one is powerful enough – high enough – one can play it safe, take few risks, and get by for a while. Perhaps a generation or two. But we’re not there yet, honey.” He sighed. “We’re so far from there.”

Ogive pulled her chair closer. She had never known Sigefrith like this – never heard that dark voice, more bass than baritone; never seen him slouch not from insouciance but from crushing care. And yet there was not a hint of defeat in his expression – only the fatigue of men who have bodies that demand more sleep than their minds.

There was not a hint of defeat in his expression.

The King did change into another sort of being after midnight, she saw, when all his subjects were abed and the mask of his majesty was laid aside. She who had grown up with a mighty but distant father recognized the hour for what it was: a moment of true intimacy with a great man.

She blurted, “I feel a little silly with my puppy letter now.” She giggled, and felt even sillier afterwards.

Sigefrith smiled. “You don’t yet know what can be accomplished with ‘puppy letters,’ honey. Queen Margaret is one of my most precious allies.”

He leaned his head back against the chair and studied her face. The light of many candles sparkled over his eyes.

He added, “And so are you.”

'And so are you.'