Caedwulf did not need to be told that the young woman who had opened the door was not the young woman he had come to see. Even if the younger daughter of the Count of Flanders were given to personally answering the door, his fifteen-year-old betrothed could not possibly have the body of a nineteen-year-old. A pity, that.
The nineteen-year-old giggled and stepped aside.
“Who is it, Trudi?” the small girl behind her asked uneasily.
She spoke some Flemish or low Saxon dialect, but it was close enough to English that Caedwulf understood without trouble: she only sounded foreign to him. He supposed he would sound backwards and provincial to her.
“See for yourself,” Trudi snickered.
Caedwulf swept into the room and bowed. “Only a humble servant, here to see whether you need anything carried up or down, or taken in or out. But it appears that all your chests are here.”
The chest that most interested him was promising for a fifteen-year-old, though the body to which it belonged was small and always would be, and if the arms were any indication, the legs would be spindly.
But the face!
Her skin was a disagreeable, pasty white – as unlike Hetty’s translucent beauty as a hunk of chalk was unlike a lily – but worse still was the thick splattering of freckles that ran over it, rivaling Lady Eadgith in the matter of blotchiness. The only fine skin she possessed lay over her eyes, and that simply served to reveal the violet shadows behind.
The lips, moreover, were pale and not in the least enticing; the nose was straight without being handsome; and the chin was weak – though with his massive jaw and pretty nose on the other side, he supposed their children might at least hope to be attractive in profile.
“You are not a servant!” she cried in outrage. “You look exactly like the King!”
“Ah!” he laughed delightedly, “in some kingdoms, ‘looking exactly like the King’ would not prevent me from being a servant.”
She gasped. “Trudi! Do you hear what he says to me? Do you hear how he offends me?”
“Allow me to introduce myself,” he said, bowing again, “since there is some possibility of confusion. My name is Caedwulf, and I am not only the King’s son but the Queen’s as well. And I can almost promise you that everything that despicable Selwyn told you about me is lies.”
“It was no lie if you can introduce yourself into my chamber without a guardian! Trudi! Do you see how he offends my modesty?”
“Fortunately dear Trudi is, in fact, here to see how,” he said. “We were to have been introduced at supper, but wouldn’t you like to get the bitter disappointment out of the way now so that you may compose yourself before supper and pretend to like me then?”
“I shall compose myself, but I shall not pretend to like you,” she huffed.
“Then I must somehow convince you to truly like me…” he shrugged.
“Trudi! Is this how young ladies are treated in this country?”
“The young ladies do often truly like the young men in this country…”
“Trudi! Do you see him? Does he know who I am?”
“Trudi!” Caedwulf gasped. “Tell me – do I err? Is this not the Lady Eadgifu, daughter of the Count – ”
“No!” the girl cried.
Caedwulf was briefly stunned out of his self-assurance. Had he erred after all? Had his father brought home another young lady he had not even mentioned, and had he chosen the wrong room? Or had his father meant to play a joke on him by telling him he would be marrying the daughter of the Count of Flanders and sister of the Queen of Denmark, only to later spring on him some… something else?
“No?” he squeaked.
“Je m’appelle Ogive,” she said, as imperiously as she might have said, “Je suis la Reine de France.”
“Oh!” he said, oddly relieved, though it meant there would be no other, possibly prettier girl behind some other door. “That’s the French form of the name.”
“No. It is my name. Eadgifu is the English form. I shall be called Ogive.”
“But we speak English here.”
“And in my father’s court we speak French, but everyone called you Caedwulf, did they not? How would you like it if I called you ‘Bateau-Loup’ instead?”
“I think I should like that very much,” he grinned.
“Oh!” she gasped and stomped her foot. “Trudi! Do you hear his impertinence?”
Caedwulf was dismayed to find he had a foot-stomper on his hands. He would have to ask Malcolm how he dealt with such a creature.
But whatever fit or folly she displayed, he must keep smiling. He had always known that his father would choose his wife for him, and he had never truly believed he would be allowed to marry an elf. But in any case, his awkward handling of the conversation downstairs meant that he could never permit himself to complain about his father’s choice of bride. Or rather, his pride could never permit him.
“And I shall call you ‘Happy-Gift’ since that is what your name means. In the English form, of course,” he winked.
“‘Happy-Gift!’” she wailed. “Trudi! He thinks I am a present just for himself!”
“So my father said! Must I share you?”
“Ach! Vulgar boy! I shall call you ‘Mauvaise-Surprise!’”
Caedwulf laughed, which only infuriated her more – either that, or she was twisting up her face to prevent herself from laughing.
“Disappointing though you may find me,” he said, “I think it best that you accept your father’s decision and marry me. Have pity on the poor nuns of the abbey over which you were meant to be abbess someday.”
“Have pity!” she huffed. “Trudi! Tell him I shall make him pity himself!”
Trudi laughed. She had a deep, slow laugh that Caedwulf was certain must have shaken her breasts in a delightful way. Unfortunately he could not permit himself to turn and look.
“I should rather be an abbess than marry an impertinent boy such as you!” Ogive declared. “Even a lowly lay-sister!”
“Fortunately you needn’t marry me until I have become an impertinent man. And, truly, wouldn’t you rather be a queen than a lowly lay-sister? Then you could tease and torment men and women alike.”
“Trudi!” she gasped in horror. “Do you hear how he says I like to tease and torment?”
Trudi did not venture a reply beyond a giggle.
“And fie I say!”
She lifted her head high enough that he was able to see a throat that was spared the curse of freckles and was, furthermore, exceptionally long and graceful.
“A queen of what, forsooth? A little foggy valley, without even a coast to launch a single ship? Shall I be a queen who can stand at one side of her kingdom and see to the other side? Fie! I spit on your kingdom!”
Caedwulf lifted an eyebrow. “Do you?”
“I do!” She grinned maliciously, pleased to have at last found a weak point in him.
Her smile fell at once. “What?”
“Prove it. Spit on it.”
“What?” she gasped.
“Nothelm Keep is part of my father’s kingdom. I want to see you spit on it. Go ahead.”
She looked anxiously at Trudi behind him.
“No, no. Trudi shall not spit for you. I think Trudi likes this foggy little kingdom, don’t you, Trudi?”
“Go ahead,” he said. “Spit on it.”
“I shall not spit indoors,” she sniffed, but her pasty face was beginning to glow with pink.
“Then let us open a window and you may lean out and spit upon the heads of passers-by, who are also subjects of my father and therefore part of my father’s kingdom.”
“Trudi!” she gasped. “Do you hear him? Asking a lady to spit on gentlefolk?”
“Well, you may spit upon any part of my father’s kingdom that you choose,” he shrugged. “But I insist that you spit on it, or take back your words. If there is one thing I cannot respect it is empty threats.”
She pursed up her mouth into a very sour little expression. For a moment he believed she was considering spitting on him. Instead she said, “You must grant me the time to find the part of the kingdom I like least, so that I might gain the greatest pleasure from spitting upon it.”
“Agreed. But I recommend you hurry, as his kingdom will surely only get larger over time, and then you will have to start looking all over again.”
“Ach!” She waved her hand dismissively. “I suppose you think he will be King of England someday.”
“Not at all! The moment King William believes your father has the chance to be king of anything outside of his imagination, he will sweep this ‘kingdom’ off the map with the back of his hand. If he hasn’t done it yet, it is simply because he has had so many troubles in Normandy.”
“King William is very nearly the only king who hasn’t accepted my father’s claim and written to him as Sigefrith Rex, fellow king and brother. Even the Holy Roman Emperor would have done it if the Pope hadn’t beat him to it.”
“And the King of France?” she countered.
“Ah, but when the Queen of France writes to her half-sister the Crown Princess of Lothere…”
“My sister does not know how to write,” she said smugly.
“Therefore her husband will have to write for her,” he winked.
“Ha! Do you think he will bother? Philippe is too busy stealing away bits of Normandy every time William’s back is turned.”
Caedwulf had to admit himself delighted to be betrothed to a girl who would talk politics with him, even if only to insult his father’s kingdom. He would have been more disappointed with a girl who loved the tiny kingdom just as it was and who was merely enraptured with the idea of calling herself a queen like her elder sisters. He would have been more disappointed with such a girl, even if she had no freckles.
“I think he will bother,” Caedwulf smiled. “I think my father will make him sit up and bother one of these days.”
“And I think your father is dreaming.”
“Do you think so?”
“I do.” The malicious smirk had returned. “I think he is dreaming the dreams of fools.”
“That is an excellent sign!” Caedwulf beamed.
Her face fell again. “What?”
“Allow me the presumption of explaining something to you, my dear bride.”
“You will explain even if I do not allow it,” she sniffed. “I think you are a boy who likes to hear himself talk. Is not he, Trudi?”
“Indeed I am, Trudi, so you both might as well listen and profit by it. Now, there are three sorts of men in the world: men who do great things, men who do foolish things, and men who do nothing. The last sort is not worth mentioning, though they are in the majority. As for the first two sorts, they have one thing in common: both of them start out by dreaming the dreams of fools.”
She smirked again, though it was no longer malicious. “Then how may one know whether one is dealing with a great man or a fool?”
“One generally doesn’t until he has done the great or the foolish thing.”
She nodded slowly, still smiling. She had the look of a girl who was about to say something interesting: pale and washed-out as they were, her eyebrows and eyes expressed great depths of thought and cunning.
But there was a knock at the door.
“Ach! Trudi! Who can it be?”
It was only Alred.
“Young man! I hope this is the last time I catch you unaccompanied in this young lady’s bedchamber. Begging your pardon, Trudi, but Trudies notwithstanding.”
“It is certainly the last time you will catch me,” Caedwulf laughed.
Ogive gasped, “Alred! Do you hear how he insults my modesty!”
“I shall have a lock put on your modest door forthwith, my dear.”
“And that is only one of his outrages! Tell him, Trudi! How he begged me to spit on the floor of your castle, and when I protested, said I must lean out the window and spit on the heads of your poor people!”
Somehow she managed to maintain a straight face, but Caedwulf was nearly choking with laughter. Trudi was surely shaking behind him, but he did not look.
Alred sighed. “I did warn you.”
“And just before you came, he was telling me that his father is either a fool or a great man, but he does not yet know which!”
Caedwulf laughed and looked into her eyes, intently enough that she knew it was a challenge, and she tried to take it up. She glared at him, making the smallest, sourest face she could, as if she meant to spit at him.
But then a laugh burst out of her, overwhelming her, shaking her from one end of her spindly, freckled body to the other, and lighting her up in a most delightful way.