She had a special affection for Brunhilde.

Irene was fond of all of Hetty’s children, but she had a special affection for Brunhilde. Brunhilde and Irene’s son had been born only weeks apart. They would have been just about the same size, and everything Brunhilde said and did was something Isaakios might have said and done. Even if she did sometimes do and say things that struck one as rather unique.

“Do you know what I got for Easter?” Brunhilde asked Irene, interrupting the adults in their greetings.

'Do you know what I got for Easter?'

“No,” Irene said, “what did you got?”

“A new dress!”

“A new dress! How nice! Will you show me sometime?”

“Yes, I will. And Mama got a new dress, and Hattie got a new dress, and Gwynn and Meggie got a new dress… All the girls got a new dress. Did you get a new dress?”

“Yes, I did. I got a blue dress, and I will show you later.”

Brunhilde’s eyes went wide. Irene could see the little pools of blue become so much brighter.

“My dress is blue, too!” she whispered.

“How nice! We shall wear them at the same time, and everyone will think we are sisters!”

'How nice!'

All this was a perfectly charming conversation such as Irene might have had with any four-​year-​old.

Then Brunhilde added the touch that made it unique by leaning over Irene’s shoulder and asking, “Andronikos, did you get a new dress for Easter?”

Hetty squeaked. “Ach, Bruni!

Most English children were afraid of Andronikos. He was tall and strange-looking—the only eunuch any of them had ever seen—and he did not know how to simper and croon and talk nonsense to children in the way they were raised to expect. But Andronikos’s unflappable gravity was just what Brunhilde liked. He was the one person who never failed to speak to her as an adult, and that must have been some relief to the crotchety old lady’s soul that was trapped in her precious little curly-​headed body.

“Yes,” Andronikos said, “I did.”

'Yes, I did.'

Andronikos would never admit it, but he found Brunhilde just as refreshing as Brunhilde did him.

“What color is it?” Brunhilde asked. “Is it blue, too?”

“No, lady, it is yellow.”

Brunhilde pursed her lips and looked him up and down. Hetty began to fidget with Brunhilde’s hair and skirt, seemingly tempted to take her away before she said anything too shocking, but Irene held on tight.

“Well,” Brunhilde finally said to Andronikos, “I daresay it is very becoming. But I think you would be very pretty in blue.”

Hetty gasped, “Bruni!


“What, Mama? It was a compliment.”

“Yes, but… Ach, du lieber! Andronikos, I am so sorry.”

“Why?” he asked. “It was a compliment.”


Irene saw poor Hetty’s face turn pink, for Hetty was a little afraid of Andronikos, too.

“Here, Bruni,” Hetty said, hastily taking the girl from Irene’s arms to pass to Hattie. “It is time for you to return to the nursery for a little while. Mama is going to visit with Irene just until Andronikos has unpacked her bags, and then Irene is going to take a bath and change her clothes and have a little rest.”

“And then may I show her my dress?”

“Then everyone shall put on her new dress and we shall all go down to dinner together.”

“You, too?” Brunhilde asked, apparently amazed.

“Mama, too! Go on with Hattie now, dear. Irene!”

Hetty pulled Irene into an embrace.

Hetty pulled Irene into an embrace, and Brunhilde saw her opportunity slipping away. As Hattie carried her out, she called back, “Irene! Did Father Dominic get a new dress? Did Joseph get a new dress?”

Finally she succumbed to her own joke and broke out laughing. Irene wished she could have understood what Andronikos was saying to her as he pulled the door closed. She would have to ask him later, and they would have a laugh.

“Ach! What a child!” Hetty lamented as she rocked Irene to and fro.

'Ach!  What a child!'

How sweet she smelled! Irene hadn’t been hugged so tightly in months, excepting by Brunhilde just then.

“Poor Andronikos!” Hetty said. “She knew she was being naughty, too.”

“Do not say poor Andronikos! He is quite used to ladies who say shocking things. He likes that kind best of all.”

Hetty laughed. “Luckily for you!”

“Because of me! Oh, Hetty, let me look at you! How I have missed you!”

She held Hetty’s face away from hers at the distance at which she could still make out details: almost nose-​to-​nose. It was closer than she could come to anyone but small children and her most intimate friends.

“How are you?” Irene whispered. “You look happy!”

“I am happy! So happy! I have the healthy baby girl I wished for, and all my dear friends are gathering round me again. These last weeks, all my prayers are being answered one by one!”

Irene laughed. “The Lord had a list! He must have misplaced it for a while!”

“It fell behind His throne! Ach, I fear we are saying shocking things already!”

'I fear we are saying shocking things already!'

“You are just the kind of lady I like best,” Irene assured her. “Now where is this daughter? I thought I hear her already.”

“You did! She is right here.” Hetty bent over a blob of white on a bed of blue-​green. “What a good girl you are! So quiet, waiting your turn!”

'What a good girl you are!'

“Is she awake?” Irene asked.

“She already had her morning nap, and then a feeding, and she is always quiet afterwards. Such a good girl! How different they all are,” she sighed as she lifted the baby out of the cradle. “Bruni cried every time I laid her down. I thought I would never survive. Here, Liebling! Go meet Irene.”

Irene took the swaddled baby and lifted her straight up to her face. She could make out dark, slanted eyes, a nub of a nose, and a blurry pink mouth, but it was the scent that struck her: the milky breath, the sweet, clean skin. Her heart was catapulted back four years, and for an instant she was seized by a savage desire to clutch the baby to her breast and run.

It was the scent that struck her.

Then she took another breath, deliberately returned to the present, and sighed. Perhaps Andronikos was right. It was time for her to have another child.

“She is so perfect, Hetty. So beautiful.”

“Now that was a compliment,” Hetty said, giggling.

Irene laid the baby against her shoulder and worked up a smile. “Did Lili get a new dress for Easter?”

'Did Lili get a new dress for Easter?'

“No, she already has so many she never wore! And we do not often see her out of swaddling. Even though she does not like it, do you, Lili?” Hetty wriggled a finger down into the swaddling beneath the baby’s cheek. “She likes to have her arms free. Sometimes I do unwrap them,” she confided slyly, “even though Nurse always scolds me. I know Joseph does not approve of swaddling, and it is one matter on which he and I agree! Did he come with you, dear? And Father Dominic?”

Irene stopped patting the baby’s fuzzy head. “Oh, Hetty! Is he not here?”



“Joseph! Father Dominic went to visit Father Matthew, but—Joseph! Nobody knows where he is!”

Hetty was speechless. On her pale face Irene saw the dark oval of a mouth falling open into an O.

“I meant to come for Easter,” Irene reminded her. “We wait and wait for Joseph, but finally we come without him. Leila thought he was with us. We thought he was busy… perhaps an illness…”

“Ach, du lieber!” Hetty paced over to the window and back. “When did we see him last? It was after Lili’s birth…”

“Last night we slept at Thorn-​row. They saw him there… nobody knows when. A week ago, or so. He said he was going to visit us!”

'He said he was going to visit us!'

“Ach, Irene! We must ask Alred. He cannot have simply vanished.”

“No one saw his horse, either,” Irene ventured. “And it… it was a very valuable horse!”

The quaver in her voice brought Hetty rushing to her side, and Hetty’s arms went round her and the baby together.

“Now, do not worry, dear. I know what happened. Someone is very sick, and Joseph cannot leave his side. He knows we are worried, but the man is so much sicker, and when he comes back, he will tell you, ‘Worry is an easy illness to cure. And I happen to have the remedy right here!’”

Hetty kissed Irene’s cheek, though she did not specify whether that was to be part of the remedy or only a comfort for the meanwhile.

Hetty stepped back. “No! I know what happened. Joseph was on his way to you, but someone called him to see a sick person. And then he mixed up the date of Easter, because you know he does not celebrate it. And so tomorrow or the day after he will show up at Acanweald and wonder where everyone is!”

'He will show up at Acanweald and wonder where everyone is!'

Irene tried to smile. “Yes, that must be so.” But it was not like Joseph to forget about dates. Nor to forget about her.

After an awkward silence Hetty murmured, “May I ask you something, dear?”

“Of course.”

“Do you have feelings for Joseph?”

Irene patted the baby’s back and stared at the white blur of Hetty’s face, trying to guess what she meant. Even though she thought she already knew.

“You know, dear… an affection?”

'You know, dear... an affection?'

“An affection…”

Irene took the baby to the window and stared down at the gray glare of the court. Her nagging worry over Joseph was turning into an icy current of fear, it was true. He was the dearest friend she had here, aside from Andronikos and Father Dominic. Perhaps even more than Father Dominic, as Dominic always maintained a certain smiling reserve.

The evenings she shared with Joseph were full of laughter, stories, and debate. The hours flew when they were together, and she was always excited to see him come and sad to see him go. She admired and respected him for his wisdom, generosity, and compassion. And they were both foreigners here, both hailing from gentler climes and more gracious civilizations. No one but Andronikos could understand her so well as Joseph.

Of course, a man one met late in life could never take the place of a childhood friend, but with Joseph she’d regained so much of what she’d lost at the death of Konstantinos. Where was he? Would she have to lose that again?

“You need not answer,” Hetty said. “I am sorry to ask such an intimate question, and at such a time…”

Irene turned back to her. “Do not be sorry. I do have an affection, as you say.”

“Oh, I knew it!” Hetty sighed. “I could see it at Christmas. Have you ever spoken of it with him?”

'Oh, I knew it!'

No, Irene thought, they spoke of everything but that. And it had never troubled her much, because aside from missing him when he was away too long, there was nothing about their relationship she wished to change—certainly nothing she wished to endanger by bringing her “affection” to light. She even liked a bit of time alone now and then.

But how did Joseph feel about her?

“No… but perhaps I should have spoken of it.” She tried to laugh. “Suppose he ran away with a woman?”

“Ach, never!” Hetty clasped Irene’s elbows as if to steady her. “As Gwynn and Connie would say, I think he is ‘gone on you.’ That means very much in love. And I should not say so, but his sister thinks so, too. I was only uncertain how you felt.”

Irene took a deep breath and sighed. She was not quite certain herself. Or, no, she was!

“Do not worry too much, dear,” Hetty said. “I shall pray for you two, and lately I have had some luck with that.”

She giggled, and Irene laughed. Hetty could never say shocking things without turning red as a pomegranate.

Irene laughed.

“I only want to see you happy, after all,” Hetty said, patting Irene’s hand where it lay supporting Lili’s swaddled rump. “If my matchmaking distresses you, only say so and I shall never mention it again.”

“No, you do not distress me. But you must combine your efforts with Andronikos. He wants me to have a baby, but he does not say with whom!”

Hetty laughed. “So Andronikos too can say shocking things! Well, I hope you do. You are so pretty holding Lili just now that I shall be ashamed to take her back. She looks more like your daughter than mine, with her coloring.”

“She is beautiful.”

“And so will your baby be. I hope some time, next spring or so, I shall be going to visit you for the christening of your child.”

“I hope so, too, because I wish you will be her godmother!”

“Oh, thank you, Irene! It would make me so happy! And that is just what I wanted to ask of you. Will you be Lili’s godmother?”

'Will you be Lili's godmother?'

“Hetty! Of course, I will be so happy.”

Irene cuddled the warm baby against her cheek and breathed in the scent of her hair. Lili panted and grunted against her neck. A godmother was not a mother, but the title would give her the right to love this little girl with abandon. Perhaps she could even have her for long visits when she was older.

“Before you say yes,” Hetty said, interrupting Irene in her vicarious maternal bliss, “there is one thing I must tell you.”

Irene lifted her head and squinted at the blur of Hetty’s face. This sounded ominous.

“I have asked my sister’s husband Egelric to be her godfather. You remember Egelric?”

'You remember Egelric?'

All the blood drained out of Irene’s face and into the pit of her stomach.

“I know his behavior was very… shocking the last time you met. Ach, du lieber! Irene! You are as white as a sheet. Here, sit down…”

She took the baby with one arm, and with the other helped Irene to sit. The dizziness passed as soon as Irene was in the chair, but she still felt queerly disembodied, as if she were sitting beside herself. She folded her hands over her knee and tried to look alert.

She folded her hands over her knee and tried to look alert.

“He is not a bad man, dear, truly he is not!” Hetty pleaded.

“I know,” Irene said. Her voice sounded far away to her own ears. “I tried to tell him so.”

“That is right! You did! Ach, du Lieber. You must not believe those terrible things everyone says about him. They are not true! I cannot tell you how I know this, but it is so.”

'You must not believe those terrible things everyone says about him.'

“He is here?” Irene interrupted.

Her thoughts were scattered like a deck of cards, face-​down all over the floor. She had fairly well made up her mind she would never cross paths with that man again.

'He is here?'

“Yes, yes,” Hetty said, “he returned Sunday night. I saw him yesterday. That is one of my prayers coming true. But he has suffered so much, and so many have turned against him. I will be his friend, no matter what anyone says. If that is shocking, then… I intend to shock! But I will not make my other friends meet with him if they do not wish it. I do not want to make anyone uncomfortable. And he would not like it either. I am sorry, dear. But I asked him first. Though he might not mind being unasked…”

“There is no need.”

Hetty stopped fussing and fretting and faced Irene, utterly still. “There is not? Do you mean you will do it?”

'Do you mean you will do it?'

Irene tittered. “What must I do?”

“Only stand with him at the christening and present Lili. And perhaps see him from time to time here when Lili has an important birthday, and so on. But before the day, I wish you will let him apologize for frightening you as he did. He was not himself.”

Only stand with him, only see him from time to time. In spite of Hetty’s good intentions, the idea made her uncomfortable. All stirred up inside, like when she’d used to spin herself around and around, staring up at a sky she could still see and with her girlish skirts flaring out around her knees, until she collapsed laughing on the grass beside Konstantinos. Konstantinos had been a good anchor in those days, and she’d needed one, because her head had a way of going on spinning long after she hit the ground.

She hoped Joseph would return before she would have to see Egelric.

She hoped Joseph would return before she would have to see Egelric.

“Will you, dear?” Hetty asked softly.

Irene shook her head a little in an attempt to clear it. Her heavy braid quivered, loosened by the ride. No strawberry-​embroidered ribbon was woven through it, but there was such a one in her bags.

She asked, “Does he know you asked me?”


“No…” Hetty confessed. “I did not know whether you would agree, and I did not want to hurt his feelings. But if he will not apologize to you, I will not have him, regardless.”

“There is no need. He apologized to me long ago.”

“He did?”

“He did apologize. But I did not tell him I forgave him. You may tell him, Hetty. I do not need to see him before the day.”

'I do not need to see him before the day.'