Dunstan was not quite hurrying, not quite sneaking.

Dunstan was not quite hurrying, not quite sneaking, but still he hoped to return to the hall at Bernwald as soon and as inconspicuously as possible.

He did not think it likely that he had been away for so short a time that his absence would have gone unnoticed. It was illogical to think that the time he had spent waiting for Anna, which he had made as long as possible, could now be miraculously shrunk to as short a time as possible merely because he shouldn’t have gone at all—merely because the wait had been for nothing.

But in spite of his not-​quite-​hurry, Dunstan paused in the entry and stared down at the floor.

Dunstan paused in the entry and stared down at the floor.

His attention was always arrested by the sight of tiles now, but these tiles had particular, painful significance for him. He remembered how the Princess had mocked them, and he remembered how stubbornly he had evaded all her attempts to participate in the tiling of Dunellen hall.

He had sworn to himself that he would allow her to help when it came time to think about the furnishings, but he could not soothe her with this promise now unless he admitted that he was preventing her from looking at the tiles. Meanwhile he had to go on dodging her, though it shamed him to do it.

If Dunstan had not stood there a moment in the open doorway, he might have made it up to the company in the hall unhindered, but it appeared that tiles were meant now and ever after to be his doom.

Young Lord Brinstan stepped out of the narrow corridor that led to the tower stairs.

Young Lord Brinstan stepped out of the narrow corridor that led to the tower stairs.

“There you are,” he said coldly, in a startling departure from his usual hearty good cheer.

“Oh! Brinstan!”

“Where have you been all evening?”

'Where have you been all evening?'

“I went out to meet a friend…”

“Oh, a friend!” Brinstan sneered.

Dunstan felt his sheepishness harden into defensiveness, though they were both born of the same guilt. “And I don’t see how it’s your affair!”

“Let us say that I’m minding others’ affairs tonight, since I don’t have any ‘affairs’ of my own to speak of.”

“I am certain I did not give you permission to mind mine.”

'I am certain I did not give you permission to mind mine.'

“I am speaking of the affairs of someone else, who is in there wondering what became of you and why.”

“Who? My father?”

“Your father? That wasn’t whom I meant, but you may be certain he has noticed, and you had better find a finer excuse than ‘meeting a friend’ before you go in to meet him. And—for once I shall say ‘luckily’—her father is too drunk to notice you’re gone, but he’s not too drunk to notice when his daughter is upset. At least not all the time.”

'At least not all the time.'

“I don’t see what reason she has to be upset. Because she had to dance with you? Though I can see how that would be a trial.” Dunstan was not especially glib when it came to insults, but he had no other defense.

“You may hope you never find out what it is to dance with me,” Brinstan growled.

'You may hope you never find out what it is to dance with me.'

Dunstan was suddenly reminded that Brinstan’s father had once broken his own father’s nose with his fist. Even at thirteen Brinstan was already taller and broader than Dunstan, and the difference in their sizes would only grow greater with the years.

Dunstan lifted his head and looked down his nose, as his mother always had, to give himself the illusion of height.

“You must excuse me, Brin. I had thought that the baby was the attraction here tonight. I was not informed that the Countess organized this party for the sole purpose of obliging me to dance with the Princess.”

“Didn’t she?” Brinstan said with hushed anger. “One could almost say she did. If the Countess had such a party with music and dancing only a week after her baby’s birth, I think it is precisely to allow the princesses to dance. I don’t live in this valley, but even I can see what it must be like in that castle these days, with the Queen locked away and the King drinking.”

“I think that is a bit of an exaggeration.”

'I think that is a bit of an exaggeration.'

“Is it? I hope it is. But I know Brit, and I know when Brit is hurting. And what you did tonight hurt her even more.”

“What did I do? Because I stepped out for a while?”

“You stepped out right after supper, and by the time you return Sir Baldwin and Sir Egelric and Lady Lili have already gone home.”

“They have a long way to ride.”

'Could you be any less pertinent?'

“Could you be any less pertinent?” Brinstan cried in exasperation. “Are you listening to me? She got up to dance, and you weren’t there. I don’t care who is riding where tonight.”

“I shall be absolutely pertinent: you want to reproach me for stepping out tonight and leaving behind my betrothed. Let me remind you that we have been betrothed for years, since we were children. We are not expected to act like a pair of twenty-​year-​olds in love.”

'We are not expected to act like a pair of twenty-year-olds in love.'

“Neither you nor Brit are children any longer.”

“Who are you to be giving me lessons? You’re—what? Thirteen? Have you been promised to a girl years younger than you, who rates on the scale of annoyance somewhere between your whining little sister and Caedwulf when he’s allowed to have a cup or two of wine? And no one asked you whether this was the girl you wanted? Have you?”

'Have you?'

“I suppose I soon shall be.”

“Then we shall talk. Not before.”

“No! We shall talk now. Brit is my friend. And she’s a young lady. And young ladies should not be treated the way you are treating her. She has a right to expect you to dance with her. If you do not, you are no gentleman.”

'If you do not, you are no gentleman.'

Dunstan did not have a response to this. This was the heart of the matter. He was not being a gentleman. He was ashamed, but there was nothing he could do about it. He was in love.

He could not help it if the Countess had scheduled her party for the same night that he was supposed to meet Anna. It already infuriated him that he had missed her because the dinner had gone on for so long. He could not help it if the Princess had suddenly grown sentimental in her spoony, thirteen-​year-​old way. He was in love.

“I shall apologize to the Princess, and I shall endeavor to dance with her at the next possible occasion. However, I warn you not to attempt to read me a lesson again. Not until you have some idea what it is to be betrothed to a girl you did not choose. Does she know you’re here? Does she know you’re telling me this?”

'Does she know you're telling me this?'

“Certainly not!”

“Well, then, the next time you are so inspired, you may ask yourself whether anything you have to say to me will bear repeating to her, as I shall tell her that you’ve declared yourself her champion, and we shall see what she says then.”

“And why would you do that? To humiliate her?”

'And why would you do that?'

“No. To make you stop a moment and realize that this is not your affair, and also that you don’t know anything about it. A betrothal is nothing but a promise, Brinstan. It is not simply all the duties of marriage with none of the privileges.”

It had seemed clever before he said it, but once the words were out of his mouth, he realized how crass they sounded.

“The privileges!” Brinstan gasped. “Is that all you want?”

'Is that all you want?'

“No, Brin…”

Brinstan spun away from him and charged out into the court, leaving the door swinging open behind him.

Dunstan was too ashamed to call after him. He supposed he should consider himself lucky that Brinstan had not broken his nose.

Dunstan was too ashamed to call after him.