'I'll let you in.'

“I’ll let you in,” Aering said skeptically, “but don’t blame me if he blows his top. He’s busy. With business!”

Gwynn was unimpressed. “That’s fine, because I’m here on business.”

“What business? You’re a girl!

'You're a girl!'

Gwynn rolled her eyes and went to rap on the door herself. Aering goggled at her, scandalized.

“Runt!” Sigefrith shouted from within. “This had better be important!”

“I told you!” Aering whispered.

Gwynn leaned her cheek against the door and called, “Sigefrith? It’s Gwynn! I can return later if you’re busy!”

“Gwynn?” She heard a chair being pushed back and a clap of Sigefrith’s square hands. “Come in! Come in! Too busy, indeed!”

Gwynn grasped the door handle, but she paused long enough to cock her hip at Aering and flutter her lashes. “I’m a girl!” she cooed at the little page before opening the door and sashaying inside.

Almost smack into Cedric.

Almost smack into Cedric.

“Gwynn!” he gasped. “I was just—the door—open!”

Aering came in, snickering. “Oh, I forgot to mention! My brother’s in here!”

“Cedric!” Gwynn said, a little too brightly. “How are you? Wasn’t that a lovely performance last night?”

Why, oh why, had she mentioned last night?

Why, oh why, had she mentioned last night? And why hadn’t she thought to wear a different perfume? During the night she’d bolted awake with the thought that a hint of violets might have lingered in Cedric’s room. What if he had recognized it and wondered about it? What if her scent had entered his dreams?

“Uh, yes it was!” Cedric said. His voice cracked, and he continued in a squeak, “I liked the duet best of all.”

Sigefrith swatted his back and said, “Of course you do, runt. Your every utterance is a song for two voices. Good afternoon, honey. To what do I owe the singular honor of this visit?”

'To what do I owe the singular honor of this visit?'

Gwynn curtseyed to her King. “Is ‘singular’ a hint that I should visit more often?”

“I wish you would. Then I might at least hope that one out of every hundred interruptions will be for something pleasant. Shall we retire to the sitting room?”

“I beg your pardon, Cedric,” Gwynn said to the blushing Squire. “I must have a private conversation with the King. But it was so nice to catch a glimpse of you as I hurried past.”

Cedric grinned stupidly, and Sigefrith mussed his hair. “Hear that, runt? There goes your fond hope that she’s using me as a pretense to visit you.”

“Sigefrith! You are unkind today.”

'Sigefrith!  You are unkind today.'

“Don’t worry, honey, it won’t last. His desirability to the fair sex is increasing every day, whereas mine…” He mussed his own graying hair. “One day we shall meet in the middle, and after that it’ll be all over for me. Go on, runts. Cedric, don’t leave the castle. I shall need you later.”

Sigefrith waited while Cedric and Aering took their leave. Then he rubbed his hands together, looking uncharacteristically nervous. “A private conversation, eh? Let’s go in and have a seat.”

He gestured at the door to his private sitting room. Gwynn looked over at his crowded desk instead. She had already rehearsed the entire interview, but she had imagined it would be set over there.

“Sigefrith, I must confess, this isn’t a personal visit. This is an affair of state.”

'This is an affair of state.'

“You don’t say. Well, I haven’t a protocol for transacting affairs of state, in private, with fair ladies—” he ticked off the conditions on his fingers “—but I expect I can be just as stately sitting on a cushion as on a hard chair. What’s more, something tells me I am going to need a drink. Will you be my guest?”

He opened the door for her and followed her into the other room. As he was lighting candles, he asked, “Is that hair thing one of your mother’s?”

Gwynn turned to him, laughing. “Hair thing! Ever the poet, Sigefrith!”

“Well? Hair gewgaw. I don’t know what they’re called. I only know how much they cost. May I offer you a cup of mead?”

'May I offer you a cup of mead?'

“Yes, thank you. It is called a hair clip. And yes, it was my mother’s. Father gave it to me when I mentioned I wanted to grow my hair long.”

“I thought I recognized it. You so resembled her yesterday, I had to look twice. She used to wear her hair that way when she was young.”

Wordless for once, Gwynn watched him pour. She was accustomed to being told she resembled her mother, but yesterday in her new red dress and her “hair thing,” she’d felt like she might have gone too far. She feared she’d reminded her father too much of her mother, just now when he and Hetty were starting to spend time together again.

And was it too much to ask for people to notice her for her own sake? Nobody fawned over Margaret because she so resembled their father.

“I’ve known you since you were just a few minutes old,” Sigefrith said, “so you’ll excuse a fond old man his ham-​fisted compliment. To wit: I think it’s very becoming on you. We can’t see just how pretty you are unless you pull your hair back from your face.”

Gwynn unconsciously tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. That, she thought, was a compliment just for her, and if she wasn’t mistaken she was even blushing.

Gwynn unconsciously tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear.

“Why, Sigefrith, that was hardly ham-​fisted at all!”

“I hadn’t gotten to the ham-​fisted part yet, honey. I was about to say, I said precisely the same thing to your brother a few years ago, when he abruptly got the idea to start pulling back his hair.”

Gwynn laughed. Sigefrith picked up his goblet and lifted it to hers.

“To your health,” he said. “May you live to see your daughter’s prettiest daughter wear your mother’s ‘hair thing’ in her hair.”

'To your health.'

“To your health, my lord,” Gwynn said, touched. “May you live to bounce her on your knee.”

They drank, and then Sigefrith turned her towards the couch with a gentle hand on her back.

“Ah, now that would be—as your father would say—poetically right. Did you know you spent the first hour of your life upon my lap?”

“No! But I knew that my father broke his nose when I was born, and for three days he thought Mother had died. We don’t talk much about that. He likes Margaret’s story better.”

Gwynn heard a catch in her voice.

Gwynn heard a catch in her voice, but fortunately it could be explained by the act of settling onto the couch. Sigefrith dragged up a chair.

“Well,” he said, “for my part, I like your story best, because I had you all to myself. Everyone was so busy caring for your mother and tending to your father, nobody had much time to spare for you. Fortunately I am nothing but an obstacle in a sickroom, so I took you down to the hall and we sat by the fire, you and I.”

“I didn’t know that.”

'I didn't know that.'

“Did you know you were born too early? It seems no one expected you to survive. But nobody told me that, so there we were. You were wide awake, staring up at me with your big black eyes. So I did what I do best: I talked for an hour straight. I have never had such a rapt audience, before or since.”

Gwynn doubted he often had an audience as rapt as he did now.

“What did you talk about?”

Sigefrith sipped his mead and wiped his mustache. “Oh, everything. I started telling you about your mother and father, but I ended up rambling. I distinctly remember telling you some advice my father gave me about buying horses.”

'I distinctly remember telling you some advice my father gave me about buying horses.'

Gwynn smiled, and Sigefrith looked a little sheepish.

“I believe I had made up my mind to give you some lessons about life. I must have thought horse buying tips would come in handy.”

“No wonder I begged for a pony just as soon as I could say the words!”

Sigefrith chuckled. “It’s fortunate for us that girl-​babies aren’t like goslings. It would have been awkward if you’d grown up believing I was your mother.”

Gwynn sat back, her smile growing as she thought it over. “I didn’t know any of that. Getting advice about horse-​buying from the King himself, in my first hour of life!”

'I didn't know any of that.'

The knowledge felt like a breath of fresh, clean air. Her birth story had an interesting twist, too, and not merely because it had been so gruesome that her father preferred not to call it to mind.

“And I was the first man who ever kissed you,” Sigefrith said, “if not the first person.” He laughed and slapped his thigh. “Wait till I tell Cedric! I shall have that advantage over him till the day I die!”

“Oh, Sigefrith!”

Sigefrith chortled. “Forgive me, honey. Teasing my squires about their sweethearts is one of the abiding joys of my life. I am especially looking forward to Aering. Every joke he makes about his big brother now, it shall be repaid a hundredfold.”

“Aering deserves it. Poor Cedric doesn’t need you pointing out that his voice cracks.”

'Poor Cedric doesn't need you pointing out that his voice cracks.'

“I shall tell him you noticed without my commentary.”

Gwynn sighed in exasperation. “Sigefrith! Be kind!”

“Very well, very well, since you asked me, I won’t mention it again. But it strikes me that I am stalling. We have an affair of state to discuss.”

Sigefrith rolled his goblet between his hands and watched her. She may have been a girl, but Sigefrith was taking her seriously.

Gwynn took a drink of mead and set her goblet aside. Sigefrith did likewise. Gwynn took a deep breath. Sigefrith waited.

“My lord,” she said, “I know where Joseph is.”

'I know where Joseph is.'

“Joseph, the doctor.”

“Yes, Leila’s brother.”

Sigefrith’s brow lifted slightly. “Go on.”

“He’s in Scotland. Young Aed… had him… kidnapped, one might say.”

Gwynn waited for a comment, but Sigefrith simply blinked at her.

“Last night,” she said, launching breathlessly into her rehearsed story, “after I sang with Sinnach Donn, he passed me a letter, folded small. It was from Young Aed. Here is that letter.”

'Here is that letter.'

Gwynn took the letter—carefully refolded—out of her purse. She unfolded it, smoothed it flat over her lap, and turned it around so that Sigefrith could have read it if he’d known Gaelic.

He looked at it a while, his chin propped on his folded hands, but he didn’t take it.

He said thoughtfully, “Young Aed sent that man here. Perhaps for no other reason than to pass you that letter. Knowing that if the Brown Fox sang, Alred Sebright’s daughter would be certain to listen. And if I understand you, he slipped it to you right beneath your father’s nose.”

'He slipped it to you right beneath your father's nose.'

“Yes, lord. Here is what it says.”

She pulled the other parchment from her purse. This one Sigefrith reached for, and she handed it over.

“Connie and I translated it this morning. Every single word, as closely as we could render them, I swear.”

Sigefrith grunted and began to read. The corner of his mouth turned down into a frown. He read it once over, and went back to study some of the parts that interested him again. It was so quiet, Gwynn could hear the rasp of his stubble as he rubbed his chin.

It was so quiet.

Finally, frowning with both sides of his mouth, he folded up the translation, picked up the original and folded that, too, and handed them both back to Gwynn.

“He sent you to break the news to me,” he grumbled. “I congratulate you on your new career as diplomat.”

“He knew I, as a woman, would feel sympathetic,” Gwynn said.

“Yes, yes, a woman’s compassionate heart. He mentioned that last time, as I recall. He does put a lot of faith in that organ.”

“But, Sigefrith, what would you have done, if it had been Leofric or my father who was ill? And if the doctor who might have saved him lived in Galloway? Wouldn’t you have done the same?”

'Wouldn't you have done the same?'

“Why should I, when I could have sent for the doctor in the ordinary way?”

“But what if there was no time?”

Sigefrith grunted and scratched his hair. “If there is one thing that man lacks, it is patience. Also, wisdom and self-​control. Three things. But, by God—” Sigefrith slapped his knee “—he does know how to make a grand gesture! What about that song the Fox said he made up on the way?” He pointed accusingly at Gwynn’s head. “I wager you a new hair thing that the woman in the song just happened to have black hair and black eyes.”

Gwynn flushed. Condal had suggested that Aed had asked the Fox to compose the song especially for her, as another secret message, but Gwynn was not nearly vain enough to believe it. However, if Sigefrith thought so, too…

Sigefrith said, “Ha! I want a silver one, with blue ribbons. To match my eyes.” He winked at her.

'I want a silver one, with blue ribbons.'

Gwynn’s lashes fluttered. She would have liked to jest with him, but just then she was feeling a tiny bit overwhelmed. The letter had been formulaic enough, much like the first, allowing a girl to read just as little or as much into it as she liked. But the song had most definitely been a love song.

“May I ask you,” Sigefrith said in an odd voice, “just how many notes of this nature have passed between you two?”

“Only this one and the other,” Gwynn squeaked, “I swear it. And I never wrote a word to him.”

Sigefrith nodded, looking less grim. “And how do you take them? On one line he offers praise and flattery, and in the next he asks you for favors.”

Gwynn didn’t know what to say. The interview hadn’t gone at all as she’d planned. She’d scarcely embarked on her impassioned pleas on behalf of Aed’s dying friend when Sigefrith had started making jokes about hair clips. And now he was turning the conversation onto her.

Gwynn didn't know what to say.

“I… simply take them for what they are. Requests for my intercession. Expressed in such a manner that I shall be more likely to respond favorably.”

Gwynn hung her head, and was a little alarmed when her hair failed to droop and hide her pinched face.

Why did it pain her so to admit it? She and Condal had giggled and sighed for hours, but deep down Gwynn had always known what the letters were. Still, it had been pleasant to pretend the “love” and “treasured friendship” were real. Sigefrith was forcing her to dismantle her fairy tale castles and face the unromantic truth. She was being used.

“I cannot blame him for doing everything in his power,” she added. “His friend’s life is at stake.”

“So is a young lady’s heart,” Sigefrith said gently.

Gwynn lifted her chin. “Not this young lady’s. My head shall not be turned merely because a handsome young man says a few flattering things to me in the process of asking me for a favor.”

Sigefrith tried and rather failed to suppress a smile.

Sigefrith tried and rather failed to suppress a smile. “Forgive me, honey, you reminded me too much of your mother just now. She once said much the same thing to me… about your father.”

“I am not my mother.”

“I know, and Young Aed is intensely unlike your father. That’s why I begged your forgiveness. We’re getting old, Gwynn, your father and I. We’re beginning to see our lives lived over again by our children. Just glimpses like this. I’m sorry.”

He sighed and rubbed his hand over his face. Gwynn’s heart softened.

“The worst thing,” Sigefrith said, “is that Young Aed reminds me intensely of myself at eighteen. More hair than sense, and more ambition than hair. I cannot make myself dislike him. Suddenly I have a better understanding of Harold, and pity him for all he had to suffer with me!”

'I pity him for all he had to suffer with me!'

Gwynn smiled weakly. King Harold was scarcely more than a fairy tale character to her. But like her mother, he continued to inhabit the minds of her father’s generation, and they caught occasional glimpses of his ghost.

Then she wondered whether King Sigefrith would be naught but such a ghost to her children, and the thought chilled her. She was too grown-​up to climb onto his lap, wrap her arm around his neck, and simply hold him to earth. She had to settle for leaning closer and looking at him with her heart in her eyes.

She had to settle for leaning closer and looking at him with her heart in her eyes.

“However,” Sigefrith said, his voice going low and warm, “I am glad to know you have sense enough that you’ll soon be needing a gewgaw to hold it out of your face. I hope you’ll never let your head be turned by flattery, honey. As your mother used to say: Never trust anything a man says, unless he’s standing on a gallows and says he wants to come down.”

Gwynn was a little tired of hearing about her mother these last few days, but she could not help a small smile.

“Still,” he continued, “don’t let your heart be hardened by cynicism, either. We cannot discount the possibility that he is also quite taken with you. But he’ll have some convincing to do.”

Sigefrith sat back and rubbed his pants legs.

“So! Returning to our business, I recall that your intercession has been requested. I pray you, intercede. What should I do with him?”

Gwynn blinked at him, trying to reassemble her thoughts. She’d almost forgotten why she was here.

Gwynn blinked at him.

“Please, lord, have mercy on him. Joseph hasn’t been hurt, and he’ll be paid handsomely. And it was done to save the life of his friend.”

“He deprived a man of his liberty upon the soil of Lothere, took him out of the kingdom, and has not yet allowed him to return. That is a crime, and he is a lord of a foreign land. This is, as you said, an affair of state.”

“And that is why he wrote to me, and not to you. He knows it was wrong, but he had to do it. And he hopes I will help you understand why.”

Sigefrith grunted. “There is nothing you nor your eighteen-​year-​old admirer can teach me about love for a friend, Gwynn. But there is much I, as a forty-​some-​year-​old King, can teach that young man about being a lord. His acts have consequences beyond his little circle of friends. However.…”

He ran his hand through his hair and sighed.

“When it comes to sneaking men out of the country, I owed him one. I suppose I must be lenient. I shall simply insist that Joseph be returned at once, allowing time for receipt of the letter, et cetera. Shall I tell him I was swayed by your poignant entreaties?”

'Shall I tell him I was swayed by your poignant entreaties?'

Gwynn hesitated. Last time her father hadn’t allowed her name to be mentioned at all. “Would you?”

“If you like.”

“Do you think my father would like it?”

“Ah!” Sigefrith scratched his hair and studied the rug.

“I haven’t shown him the letter,” Gwynn said. “I wanted to show you. That is, show you first. Do you think I should show him?”

'Do you think I should show him?'

“Well, this is an affair of state, and I am the King. And I hope it will be the last such letter. Furthermore, to your honor, you did show me right away. I don’t suppose we need show your father, considering the delicacy of the matter.”

Gwynn was relieved. And that, her conscience reminded her, was a hint that she was doing wrong.

“What if he writes to me again?”

“Well…” Sigefrith rubbed his arms through his sleeves. “Let us say this. If he writes again for another affair of state—God forbid—you must promise to show me right away. And if he writes for… personal reasons, you promise to show your father right away. Or at least Hetty. Or even me, and we shall decide what to do about it. But if he begins to take a more personal interest in you, honey, I hope you agree that your father needs to be told.”

'I hope you agree that your father needs to be told.'

This was a cruel choice. If she wished to see any romance in the letter, in the song, or even in the gesture, she would have to tell her father. If she kept it between herself and Sigefrith, it would have to remain a mere act of diplomacy.

No, she did not want to see her father angry in that savage, senseless way again. She had told Sigefrith, and Sigefrith had not been shocked. She had done enough.

“That sounds sensible,” she said.

Sigefrith brushed back a lock of her hair and stroked her cheek with his big, square hand.

“And you are a sensible young lady. Now, promise me you won’t trust anything he says, and that you won’t go about unaccompanied. Now that we know he’s capable of kidnap within my borders.”

Gwynn's eyes went wide.

Gwynn’s eyes went wide. Young Aed had kidnapped Joseph so quietly that no one had missed him for days. He had sent a private messenger all the way into the apartments of the Queen, where he’d passed Gwynn a letter right beneath her father’s nose. What else might he be capable of?

What if he…? What would she…?

“Don’t worry, honey,” Sigefrith said. “Worrying is my job. And I doubt even he would dare such a thing. That would be no affair of state, and he knows it. That would be an act of villainy. That would be an act of war.”

'That would be an act of war.'