Dunstan could guess that Malcolm was coming.

Dunstan could guess that Malcolm was coming merely by the suddenness with which Eadwyn leapt from his seat on the bench next to Iylaine. Bertie was either bolder or had no guilty conscience at all, for he did not move, but only looked up at Malcolm and grinned.

As for Dunstan, he sat opposite her and had only his sister beside him. No one was jealous of him, and that was how he liked it.

“Welcome home, sprout,” Malcolm said as he approached from behind, and he smacked Dunstan on the back of the head as a further greeting.

“Owww!” Dunstan protested, but Malcolm ignored him and went to sit next to Iylaine, in the spot that Eadwyn had just left. He certainly did sit himself down as if he owned the place next to Iylaine’s right hand, Dunstan thought.

He certainly did sit himself down as if he owned the place next to Iylaine's right hand.

“Miss me?” Malcolm asked Bertie.


“No?” Malcolm cried. He squinted thoughtfully up at Eadwyn. “How old’s your sister, again?”

'How old's your sister, again?'

“Ana’s not yet ten,” Eadwyn said. “And Eada’s twenty-​​one. So guess again.”

“I don’t know… how old are your upstairs maids?”

Eadwyn and Malcolm both laughed. Dunstan laughed with them, though he did not see the humor in the situation. He lived in deathly fear of upstairs maids, as well as of the downstairs, kitchen, scullery, and milk varieties. It was not that he was afraid of them… he was afraid of falling in love with one of them. And then what would he do?

Dunstan laughed with them, though he did not see the humor in the situation.

No, he intended to steer clear of such creatures until the Princess reached such an age that he might reasonably fall in love with her, and then, he hoped, he would be temptation-​​proof. As his father had been.

But Bertie did not laugh. “Now, now! Don’t be so quick to disqualify twenty-​​one-​​year-​​old ladies!”

'Don't be so quick to disqualify twenty-one-year-old ladies!'

“What?” Malcolm gasped. “You’re not even fifteen!”

“Almost! And you barely are!”

“I’m fifteen and three months! So there!”

“Boys!” Iylaine shuddered. “Please do not fight over how old you have to be to… to…”

'Please do not fight over how old you have to be to...'

“To fall in love with a twenty-​​one-​​year-​​old?” Bertie asked sweetly. “Any age will do. It’s as easy as falling out of bed. Or into it.”

Malcolm sent Bertie a withering glance. Malcolm did not allow vulgar jokes in the presence of his cousin. It was true that Iylaine was looking painfully white at the idea.

Malcolm sent Bertie a withering glance.

“What?” Bertie wailed with an air of offended innocence. “You should see her before you condemn me for falling in love with her. She’s quite beautiful. Isn’t she, Wyn?”

“Don’t even think about it,” Eadwyn growled.

'Don't even think about it.'

“Is she here?” Iylaine asked.

“She’s downstairs with my father,” Eadwyn said.

“What does she look like?” Gwynn asked dreamily. “Does she have raven-​​black hair like mine? And snowy skin?”

'Does she have raven-black hair like mine?  And snowy skin?'

Lady Gwynn was lately fascinated by the beauty of various fairy-​​tale princesses, and her father’s stories for her were becoming little more than catalogs of swan-​​white breasts, violet eyes, midnight tresses, and shimmering gowns.

“What do you think?” Bertie asked. “They’re all as brown and red as a handful of chestnuts in that family. Look at Wyn and Sir Osfrey, Gwynn.”

“My sister has chestnut hair, almost like Princess Emma’s,” Eadwyn said. “But she is pretty. Would you like to come meet her? I shall introduce you.”

'Would you like to come meet her?  I shall introduce you.'

“Oh, that would be very kind of you,” Gwynn said and hopped down from the bench. “Will you come, Iylaine?”

“I shall see her later, at supper,” Iylaine sniffed.

Dunstan caught Malcolm’s eye in time to receive a wink. Dunstan had once observed to Malcolm that he thought Iylaine secretly jealous of the beauty of other girls, and Malcolm had congratulated him for noticing it.

Dunstan caught Malcolm's eye in time to receive a wink.

Gwynn went out with Eadwyn, asking him as they walked about the precise color of his sister’s skin – in metaphorical terms, of course.

“Don’t you want to see her, Malcolm?” Bertie asked sweetly.

“I shall see her later at supper,” Malcolm said, with another sly glance at Dunstan.

“Suit yourself,” Bertie said. “More for me.”

“She can’t be that beautiful if she’s twenty-​​one and not married,” Iylaine said in exasperation.

'She can't be that beautiful if she's twenty-one and not married.'

“She’s a widow,” Dunstan said.

“A young one,” Bertie said. “Very young. And very widowed.”

“How can one be very widowed?” Dunstan asked.

“I don’t think she misses her husband all that much. I don’t know, but I’m just saying.”

“What do you know about that?” Dunstan cried.

“She dances and laughs and likes pretty dresses and bothers about her hair and what all.”

'She dances and laughs and likes pretty dresses and bothers about her hair and what all.'

“Well? That doesn’t mean anything. My father does all of that, and he – well, he doesn’t care about dresses or his hair, but – ”

“The devil!” Malcolm swore and smacked his own forehead. “That’s it,” he said to his cousin, and shook his head ruefully.

'That's it.'

“That’s what?” she asked.

“That’s the thing the Baron and the Duke have in common.”

“They don’t care about pretty dresses?” Bertie asked. “Because, I don’t know, but I think the Baron might…”

'Shut up, Bertie!  I'm talking to my cousin.'

“Shut up, Bertie! I’m talking to my cousin. Do you remember when we were trying to decide what they had in common so that Eadwyn’s father would like them both?” he asked her.

“Aye…” she said.

“That’s the thing. They’re both widowers. And they’re both noblemen. And Sir Osfrey Ealstan has a twenty-​​one-​​year-​​old daughter!”

“No!” Iylaine gasped. “You don’t think…”

'You don't think...'

“I don’t know,” he said grimly. “I haven’t seen how he is with the Duke. But you had better believe I shall be watching them tonight! And her!”

“But…” Dunstan murmured, “but he only brought her because it’s the King’s birthday. And because Ana and Freya came, and they’re good friends. And because…”

“You watch her, sprout,” Malcolm warned him. “Unless you like her for a stepmother, that is.”

'You watch her, sprout.'

Dunstan slumped back against the bench in despair. He had never dreamed of such a thing. Of course his father had danced with Eada, and complimented her, and talked with her, and everything gentlemen did with ladies… but he did that with all of the other ladies, too. Surely he would not…

But Dunstan hadn’t been paying attention. He had never dreamed of such a thing. And yet he knew his father still loved his mother, still missed his mother more than anything. There were still occasions when something would remind him of her, and he would be inconsolable for hours. He would be of no use to anyone for the rest of the day.

One had only to read his poetry to understand, Dunstan thought. His father was temptation-​​proof. When once one had loved like that, one would never need – and never could – love again.

His father was temptation-proof.