Dublin, Ireland

Cynan capped his ink and laid aside his pen.

Cynan capped his ink and laid aside his pen. It was about time.

Good morning, Mother.”

Good morning. How was your voyage?”

She looked around the room.

The question seemed to hold no more interest for her than an acquaintance’s “How do you do?” She looked around the room as if she still held out a hope she would find someone else inside. She appeared almost ill: thinner than when he had left her, and her face was wan.

Cynan held out his arms, and she stepped closer to offer him a stiff embrace.

She stepped closer to offer him a stiff embrace.

Cold, but tolerable,” he said. “How have you been this winter? Morud crawled in on top of me last night to show me how many teeth she lost.”

His mother met his grin with a smile that showed none of her own teeth. “One would think, to listen to her, that no child had ever lost its teeth before.”

Well, she never lost a tooth before, so it’s a grand occasion for her. Come in, Mother. Sit down. Only let me get lazybones here out of the way…”

He headed for the old cat that lay dozing on his armchair, but the tone of his mother’s voice froze him in place.

'Do not move that animal.'

Do not move that animal on my account, if you reserve that chair for it. I am not in the habit of going about with cat hair on my gown.”

Cynan rubbed his forehead. At least she had spoken up before he had woken the poor creature.

Of course. Have a seat at my table, then. Ronan never sits over here, unless he’s on my lap.”

His mother followed him across the room. “Whom are you writing to already? You just returned home.”

'Whom are you writing to already?'

Cynan blinked at her. “Yes… and found a stack of letters when I arrived. I shall be doing nothing but writing letters for the next few days.”

The very idea was invigorating. Things had happened! He had things to say!

Ach!” His mother clucked at him. “Poor thing. You ought to take a secretary.”

'Poor thing.'

Cynan smiled and shook his head. She understood him no better than she did his father.

To pen this letter personally, I am by courtesy obliged. I write to Young Aed of Galloway, thanking him for his hospitality and for the ship that brought me home. First things first.”

'First things first.'

Oh?” His mother pulled out the chair and inspected the seat for cat hairs. She did not seem impressed by this revelation.

He expressed an exceedingly flattering interest in my father’s plight, Mother. He asked what schemes had been tried to free him, and what was the mood among the people, and he brought out his maps and we went them over. He made no promises, of course, but nor did I reveal any plans. Still, he is a fine man, and I am glad to know him. He’s the future of that country, I would wager.” He snorted. “And I certainly have nothing to lose if I do, for all Old Aed has ever paid us any mind. He cares of nothing more distant than the tip of his beard.”

His mother looked up and blinked at him, feigning interest. “Oh? Are there two of them?”

'Are there two of them?'

Cynan sighed. He wondered how much more interested she would be if she ever had a look at Young Aed. “Yes, Mother, there are two of them.”

Oh? And did you meet your cousins, then?”

Another surge of excitement flooded over him. He had things to say! But he pretended to be unaffected.

Why, yes. Haven’t you seen Grandmother today?”

I just awoke. I found her already out.”

Cynan glowed. He would have a chance to tell his tale all over again to someone hearing it for the first time.

'I certainly did meet them.'

I certainly did meet them. I stayed more than an entire month with them. It’s a pity their mother is dead, but their father is a charming gentleman, quite obliging. I met two of the brothers, the eldest and youngest, and the two sisters. And, Mother!”

His mother smiled. At last the color was returning to her cheeks, and the sparkle to her lovely eyes.


Cynan!” she cried, entering into the spirit of the occasion.


Mother, she’s magnificent! I cannot believe my luck. Surely, I thought, someone so eminently suited to me by blood was bound to be catastrophically unsuited in some other manner, by some sort of providential equilibrium. But she is splendid! I speak of my younger cousin, Lady Margaret. It’s a pity that Lady Gwynn…” He waved his hand, dismissing the thought before it was fully formed. “Ah, but truly, Margaret’s only flaw is that her sister was granted the name my bride ought to have had.”

His mother smiled at him, much amused. “We cannot expect perfection in this world.”

'We cannot expect perfection in this world.'

No, indeed. And of course, Margaret is as yet an unpolished jewel. She will require some training. Grandmother has condescended to write to her with the next courier, and I hope they will enter into a correspondence.”

Cynan expected that Margaret would have great fun reading his old-​fashioned grandmother’s letters aloud and mocking every line, but he also trusted her replies would be as elegant and as modest as his grandmother’s old-​fashioned heart could desire.

And, Mother, I wish you would have her add a line or two on your behalf.”

Ach!” She waved her hand. “Have me say anything you like. I leave it to you and your grandmother. But tell me the important thing: is she pretty, at least?”

Cynan laughed. “She is at least pretty! I believe she will grow into quite a beauty. Small and slim, dark eyes and dark hair—curly, a little like yours. Pretty teeth. And her skin! Not a freckle on it.”

'Not a freckle on it.'

Oh, dear!” His mother tittered and pressed a hand over the beauty mark on her cheek. “I feel quite overshadowed already.”

Nonsense, Mother. You have a different sort of beauty entirely. Choosing the loveliest between you is entirely a matter of taste. But you, of all women, ought to know how the people do love a beautiful princess. They will forgive us men any ugliness for that. And I daresay there is something… almost more appealing about a beautiful princess heiress, who has not yet attained to the throne… that sense of possibilities for a lovelier future…”

Instead of the boring, dowdy present they have with me.”

Ach, Mother!”

'Ach, Mother!'

Oh, never mind!” She shook her head beneath her heavy curls and smiled up at him. “There’s no talking to a young man in love.”

I am perfectly rational. If she had been pretty but stupid she would not have found favor in my eyes. But she’s brilliant, too, and highly educated. She can read and write, like grandmother. Even Welsh, a little, and I mean to teach her that. And I shall love to have her beside me to dine with certain persons.” Cynan laughed over a thought that had just recurred to him. “Does it ever happen to you, after a conversation is over, that you think of something clever you wished you had said?”

Ach! All the time! I’m so stupid.”

'I'm so stupid.'

Well, I daresay Margaret has never yet had the experience! She thinks of the clever things to say just as she needs them. One likes to sit beside her, only to hear what she says next. They are often cutting, but one almost doesn’t mind.”

Your father will adore her. Just the sort of young lady he likes.”

I, too! And, Mother, Mother, listen to this. Think, for a moment, about the Lost Princess Gwynn. The Lost Princess—don’t you like the sound? ‘The Lament of the Lost Princess!’ I think it will do well. Now, think, how the Lost Princess was carried off against her will by an Englishman, and the only keepsake of her old home she carried away was the key to her tower room. And the Princess was so beloved, and the people so grieved that the very castle was cursed. By an old crone who was her nurse, or something. And no son or grandson of old Iago will ever hold it, until his daughter—or granddaughter—returns to it with the key.”

His mother wrinkled her pretty nose. “Why would they curse their own castle? Why not curse the Englishman?”

Hush, Mother, just listen. Because they were mad with grief. So, the Lost Princess lived but a single year after she was ravished—close enough that we can say it was a year to the day. Or perhaps a year and a day… that’s more poetic. And she bore one tiny daughter before she expired. Tragic, isn’t it?”

'Tragic, isn't it?'

His mother fidgeted with the cuff of her sleeve, but she dutifully kept her gaze turned towards his face. “It is indeed.”

So think: the daughter grew up, never knowing her mother, but preserving the key. And when she died, she passed it on to her own daughter. And that daughter is Margaret! I’ve seen it, Mother! She has the key! For forty years they have kept it in the family. I daresay the people at home have almost forgotten the Lost Princess by now, and none know she has a granddaughter. So here is what grandmother and I mean to do. Grandmother shall call Blind Rhodri here this afternoon, and we shall put him straight to work composing a song. And in the spring, he shall go home and start it spreading.”

Oh?” His mother was busy polishing one of her fingernails with the pad of her thumb. “You might have consulted me before sending my own bard across the sea.”

He’s my father’s bard, Mother. And that’s how important this is. We shall only have him sing the first part for now—how the castle was cursed, and about the Lost Princess and the lost key. Get the people sighing. Get some of the oldsters remembering. It’s only been forty-​some years. There ought to be a few left alive who remember the Lost Princess, and with a few ‘reminders’ from Blind Rhodri, they’ll ‘remember’ the curse and swear it’s true. And it’s a brilliant explanation for everything. It isn’t my father’s fault if he can never hold his castle. It’s the curse!”

His mother pouted. “He ought to have told my father about the curse before he asked for me.”

'He ought to have told my father about the curse.'

But Mother! Ach! There is no curse. Margaret made it up. But there could be a curse. And the key is real. And when the time is right, we shall reveal that the lost key and the lost granddaughter have been found! And then, you shall see. A middle-​aged, scarred old prince languishing in a prison is one thing. They don’t love the Normans, but the sun rises and sets as it always did, and the grain comes in, and the rents get paid, regardless. But a beautiful Lost Princess kept by cruel fates and cruel Normans from her rightful home, ah! What true Welshman could ignore her plight?”

They are ignoring mine.”

Ach, no! You know there are hundreds of men working for you and my father. We only need an extra something more, to rally all the people. A new hope. A new song to sing.”

His mother worked up a smile. “The Ballad of Lost Margaret!”

That’s the spirit!” Cynan rubbed his hands together, grinning. “Meggie says the key opens one of the tower rooms. I think I see which one. The beach-​side tower. Do you remember? It has windows on the east and west sides. I believe I shall make it our bedchamber. I daresay it’s drafty, but it would be exceedingly fitting.”

'I daresay it's drafty, but it would be exceedingly fitting.'

And if you get too cold, you shall have each other to snuggle.” His mother clasped her hands prettily over her knee and shook her head at him, smiling. “I was beginning to wonder whether I would ever see you in love, Cynan.”

It’s as well I waited, or I might not have met Margaret.”

How fortunate for you that you may marry the girl you love.”

Of course I would not have loved a girl who was ineligible. But Margaret is so much more than merely eligible that I still cannot conceive of my luck. I do not hesitate to say that even my father will approve.”

'I do not hesitate to say that even my father will approve.'

So your trip was quite a success.”

He grinned in satisfaction. “I cannot but say that it was.”

What about Cearball? How was his?”

She blinked her long lashes at him in that innocent-​baby way of hers. Cynan stared at her, open-​mouthed. It would take his spirits several seconds to plummet from their lofty heights to her level.

She blinked her long lashes at him.

His mother added, “He doesn’t seem himself.”

Cynan composed himself. “When did you see him? I heard he went directly to Two Ladies last night. He was carrying letters for Murchad.”

I saw him last night as he was leaving the castle.”

He was with me when he left the castle.”

Her baby-​girl lashes fluttered. “I meant in the street.”

Cynan turned his face away before his disgust could show. I meant in his room was more like it. But he had to pretend he did not know.

Cynan turned his face away.

He leaned his hands on the window sill and stared out into the drizzle. Outside of his warm room not a scrap of color could be seen. Gay banners might have hung from the towers of Dublin Castle, but through the fog he saw only its vague, crenellated silhouette. It might have been a phantom: only a transparent film, hanging like a veil between the gray sky and the gray rain.

It might have been a phantom.

His journey had ended, but he could not feel that he was home. Cynan had lived in Dublin nearly all his life, but he had never loved it. His heart was locked up in a tower room in Wales.

He glanced over his shoulder at his mother. “Didn’t you ask him?”

We only spoke for a moment.”

Cynan snorted. Perhaps Cearball had gone directly to Two Ladies after all, after meeting her. Perhaps he truly did love Condal as he claimed. But that did not change the fact that his mother had managed to see her lover before she had ever bothered to see her son.

And then she had the gall to ask him how her lover fared. He decided he would tell her.

He laughed. “Well, it’s no wonder he doesn’t seem himself. I’m surprised you knew him. Our dear Cearball has fallen in love!”

He looked. His mother’s eyes were wide, and her face had the ghastly color of a woman frightened to death. Cynan hesitated. She was his mother, after all.

Cynan hesitated.

Then her lips fell slack before her pretty teeth, and he remembered Morud clambering in on top of him last night, begging him to light a candle so she could show off her gap-​toothed grin. Along with his toothless old cat, they had snuggled down into the blankets so that the little girl could fill him in on all the family adventures he had missed. He would have learned little if he had relied on his mother. She preferred to snuggle up with Cearball.

I’m certain you’ll hear all about it. I never heard the end of it! Connie, Connie, Connie! Condal is her name, daughter of Flann of the Nine Kirtles. Verily a figure worthy of a ballad or two of her own. She’s a distant cousin of Murchad’s who lives in Lothere now. An exceedingly pretty girl.”

He looked his mother over for any trait of Condal’s that she most definitely did not share.

He looked his mother over.

Only fourteen, you know,” he said. “Fresh as the dawn. Slim as a deer, with a fine, narrow face, and night-​black hair. Brown as a beechnut, and with eyes of a color that cannot be compared to anything earthly. Not golden like Murchad’s… not quite green, either… Ach! Ask Cearball to describe them to you. I have never heard him come so close to saying something poetic. Of course, Connie does not please me half as much as my fair cousin, but she is exactly Cearball’s ideal of beauty.”

Her own beauty was fading before his eyes, as if he had poked a hole in it and let it drain. He faltered, “It is a matter of taste, Mother, as I said.”

'It is a matter of taste, Mother, as I said.'

But then, she was his father’s ideal. His father had always adored her, always indulged her every whim. And there were men who had died for his father, men who had lost their hands and eyes for their unwavering loyalty to him. And she…

Cynan turned to the window so he would not have to look at her.

And she is not only pretty. She is an exceedingly sweet, modest, faithful young lady. My Margaret has an impish streak to her, and I cannot but say that I like her better thus… But there again, it is a matter of taste. Cearball could not love Connie more. At last he has found a young lady he can respect. He respects her modesty and innocence and faithful heart, just as I respect Margaret’s intelligence and spirit.”

He heard his mother scoot back the chair, and he hurried on, hoping to hold up all that she wanted and would never have from Cearball. Its phantom silhouette nearly aligned with all that his father had given her, and which she reckoned without worth.

He heard his mother scoot back the chair.

And the proof of her superiority is that he wants to better himself for her sake. Ah, the influence a modest, loyal, Christian lady may have upon even the most sinful of men! Cearball intends to remain faithful to her, though they may not be married for three years yet. He even speaks of restoring the old house at Inis na nGedh for her—the last grand old manor still standing in Osraige, even if it does lack a roof in most places. He always despised the place as being too remote, but then that becomes an advantage when one is making a love nest, does it not?”

'That becomes an advantage when one is making a love nest, does it not?'

His mother was very quiet. Cynan could hear the rain dripping from the eaves to the sill outside, and splashing into puddles below. He heard Ronan wake with a start and set to washing his furry shoulder, giving it a few good lashes with his tongue.

Cynan finally looked at his mother, but he could not bear more than a glance at what he saw.

Cynan finally looked at his mother.

For a moment he considered telling her that he knew. Perhaps a straightforward argument, with shrieks and accusations and counterattacks, would have been better after all. Now, she could not defend herself. She could not tell herself that he was exaggerating Cearball’s attachment to torment her.

If he had been, he might have told her. So far as it was within Cearball’s power to love, however, everything Cynan had said about Condal was true. He had always known Cearball did not love his mother. He had not realized his mother loved Cearball, unworthy as either of them might have been.

Ronan sat up and yawned. Cynan lifted the old cat and draped him gently over his shoulder. He wanted to prevent him from jumping down and rubbing himself against his mother’s hems, but he was also grateful to have something to hold and to do.

His mother said, “I do not know how you tolerate that animal’s breath.” She turned and left.

She turned and left.