Lady Leila was too stunned at first to react. And then she laughed.

“Alred! That is like you! I was told to come down because one of the servants had been caught stealing chickens!”

'I was told to come down because one of the servants had been caught stealing chickens!'

“Am I not your most humble servant, sir?” Alred shouted over the babbling of the children. “And do not these funny chicks belong to you?”

“Oh, Alred!”

“You had better confide this young lady to my sheltering arms,” he said and nodded at the baby. “You have a lot of other small people hoping to enter into yours just now.”

“How is he?” she murmured as she passed Odile to him. He seemed too merry to be carrying bad news, but Alred was known to laugh when he most longed to cry.

'How is he?'

“Haven’t you heard yet? I had thought someone would have sent heralds to the four corners of the kingdom by now. The King is very well and currently enjoying a forced holiday at Raegiming. He woke up at dawn and promptly swore at Malcolm and Brit for yammering at his bedside when he was trying to sleep.”

She heard cries of “Mama!” from all sides, except from quiet Cedric, who only stood smiling with shy happiness at her.

Cedric stood smiling with shy happiness at her.

But Cedric, who was nearly ten now, was old enough to visit her on occasion when a groom could be spared to ride with him. And he was generous enough to stand by and wait for that reason, so that she could greet her other children first, and she loved him for it.

“I believe I shall start from oldest and hug my way down to littlest,” she said.

'I believe I shall start from oldest and hug my way down to littlest.'

“Awwwww!” Aefen whined. “Cedric always goes first!”

“From what I have seen today alone,” Alred said, “Cedric does not always goes first, and indeed he is gentleman enough often to go last. You should follow his example.”

“Somebody has to go first!” Aefen pointed out.

“That honor goes either to age or to beauty, and you have little enough of either, young man.”

Aering laughed at his brother, content in the knowledge that he was older and furthermore looked little enough like his dark twin that the charge of ugliness did not necessarily apply to him.

Aering laughed at his brother.

Meanwhile Leila had moved on to her eldest daughter, eight-​​year-​​old Raegan, who toyed fondly with her mother’s earring and sighed, “I always forget how beautiful you are, Mama.”

'I always forget how beautiful you are, Mama.'

Leila did not forget how beautiful Raegan was, and nevertheless it struck her like a surprise whenever she saw her. She and Leofric had made five extraordinarily beautiful and clever children. Everyone said so. It seemed like a sign that she and he had been meant to be brought together, though a king had died to make it possible.

The truth was that Leofric seemed more and more to her like one of the gods of the ancient stories that he used to tell the children. Such gods would occasionally dally a while with a mortal woman, perhaps injuring her with their strength that they could never quite suppress, but always leaving her with magnificent, beautiful, godlike children.

I don’t forget, Mama,” six-​​year-​​old Lissa said.

'I don't forget, Mama.'

Lissa resembled Leila more than Raegan did, but she had an Englishwoman’s straight and handsome nose. She would be more beautiful than her mother, and Leila was only too happy to acknowledge it.

Finally she went to her young twins, who had turned four in November on their father’s own birthday. Soon five years would have passed since the birth of the last children Leofric would give her, but he had left her nothing to desire. Aering’s face was a handsome blend of Leofric’s and her own father’s, with precisely the most attractive features of each. Aefen was formed likewise from parts of Leofric and parts of her beloved brother. And they both had their father’s striking hazel eyes.

They both had their father's striking hazel eyes.

“Alred, I don’t know how to thank you,” she smiled at him. “I was fearing to hear bad news today, and instead you have made me very happy.”

“That is my pleasure and my honor, sir,” Alred said.

“But I haven’t even greeted you, yet!” she laughed.

'I had remarked that I am, in fact, the oldest person in the room.'

“I had remarked that I am, in fact, the oldest person in the room, but I was too shy to claim my right to go first.”

“Give the baby to Cedric and I shall do you the favor of allowing you to kiss my hand.”

This he did.

“Tell me, Sir Leila, since you seem to like these children so much: if I kidnap them and hold them hostage at some point… say towards the end of next month… do you suppose you will feel obliged to come rescue them?”

'Do you suppose you will feel obliged to come rescue them?'

“Don’t worry,” she laughed. “We mean to attend your wedding, Inch’Allah. Godefroy does not believe in transporting babies so far, but I told him I don’t believe in missing friends’ weddings, and he wisely chose to listen to me.”

“I shall be delighted to see you both there. And I cannot wait to introduce you to my bride. I am certain that you and she will be great friends, even at such a distance.”

'She has already written me very interesting letters.'

“She has already written me very interesting letters. I only fear that she will not find me clever or educated enough.”

“You are certainly clever enough, and your educations are complementary, since they come from entirely different cultures. I only wish you lived closer! And not only for Hetty’s sake.”

“I wish it too. At times I am lonely, Alred,” she said wistfully.

'At times I am lonely, Alred.'

“Are you? I too.”

“Even now?” she asked.

“Even now. And you?”

“Even now,” she agreed with a sad smile.

'Even now.'