It wasn't the first time you met her.
There were only so many families, so many names in the realm that meant anything. You all spent your childhoods being run back and forth to each other's great houses. When you were in private, your father or your uncle pummeled you with speeches about honour and the family name – Esperance! Percy! The men of the North! – punctuated with rants on the subject of other families that hadn't rightfully earned the station to which they had jumped up. But then those upstart families would visit you, or you would visit them, and you'd be sent to pass your idle hours with their sons in the spirit of a united Albion, brought to life through the diplomacy of the play yard.
You were expected to win all the games, of course, to beat the other men's sons. Being Harry Percy, you always did.
Girls would be there, too, sisters and cousins of the boys you were beating. Never exactly part of the game, but never wholly separate. They belonged to a different, parallel game, only it took a while for you to notice it was going on.
It was Edmund Mortimer's fault, when you finally did. He was mooning over a girl. Some rosy-cheeked Neville wench, probably. That was Edmund's deadly-dull type. This wasn't that unusual, not for Edmund, but the degree of it was getting alarming. He hadn't wanted to spar for days, and was even making noises about learning to play the lute.
"She's just a girl," you found yourself saying. "She's not even that pretty." Never in your fourteen years had you expressed your opinion on the prettiness of a female. You were not at all sure it was a subject for a boy who wanted to be a man to talk about, although when you applied thought to the subject, it seemed like it must be. That was exactly the problem with applying too much thought to things; your thoughts ended up in places you hadn't wanted them to go.
Of course, that was also the problem with not applying thought to things. Because now you'd raised the subject, and the other boys were looking at you as though you were supposed to have an opinion and they actually cared what it was. You glanced back across the yard at the girls, gathered in their circle to sew clothes or play with dolls or whatever girls did among themselves. "None of them are all that pretty," you said, loud enough that some of the girls looked up.
And then your eyes settled on her, black-haired and high cheekboned, slightly aloof from the rest, reading a book. "Maybe," you amended. "Maybe the one on the end. I don't know why anyone would bother with any of those girls except for her."
The other boys turned toward you, and silence hung in the air a little too long, creating the far from unfamiliar sense of your having said the wrong thing. It was Bolingbroke's son Hal, finally, who snorted and said, "You mean Mortimer's sister?"
"Huh." You looked again and it made sense, you could see it in her features. Still. She'd been eleven, maybe, the last time you saw her (last time you noticed) and now she must be closer to fourteen. "She's gotten taller. And also more –" You could think of ways to describe what it was that happened to girls between age eleven and fourteen, but the precise words appropriate to the circumstances, in the case of a well-born girl, were eluding you until. . .
Hal nudged Mortimer. "Are you listening to what Percy's saying about your sister?"
"It's a compliment," Mortimer answered, but uncertainly.
"Is it? I can only infer that couched in the compliment is the clear suggestion of what he'd like to do to your sister given the opportunity. . ."
You weren't one to waste your time applying an excess of thought to things, but most things didn't require too much thought, and this situation was clear enough. Hal was trying to start a fight between you and Mortimer, because he was bored and wanted the entertainment or because he couldn't help himself or because he could have helped himself if he had wanted to but didn't want to because was he was a complete son-of-a-bitch.
You didn't want to fight Mortimer because you'd beat him and it would be too easy. Mortimer didn't want to fight you because you'd beat him and it would hurt. You didn't want to stand there with the other boys any longer, not even for the prospect that somebody might get sick of Hal and punch him. If you stood there any longer, the person doing the punching would be you, which would be bad for Hal because there would be some kind of permanent damage to his face, and bad for you, because Bolingbroke, being Bolingbroke, would insist that you apologize, which would be humiliating for everyone involved including Hal.
You didn't think that out, in so many logical steps, because you never were that kind of thinker. But every element was in your head, smashing together and giving you the clear sense that you were standing on the wrong side of the yard.
That was how you, Harry Percy, contrary to any inclination you might have possessed two minutes before, turned out to be the first one to walk across the invisible divide and talk to a girl.
"You're Kate," you said.
"You're Harry Hotspur." Kate didn't look up from her book. She turned the page, engrossed by what she was reading. It seemed to be in Greek.
"We were just talking," you said. "About you."
"I heard. If you want the pleasure of walking over to me and sharing that information, you should do your talking more quietly."
"We were saying you were the prettiest girl here." She turned another page. You wondered if she could be reading so quickly. You wondered if she might be holding the book upside down, which you had always found difficult to determine, when it came to Greek. "Come now, Kate," you said. "A pretty girl like you doesn't need to be shy."
"I'm not shy. I'm unimpressed."
"Now, now. There was almost a fight over you."
"There was not. There was almost a fight with you and my brother because you were being crude, and because Hal is an idiot who likes to stir up trouble."
"There ought to be fights over you. There ought to be wars waged in your honour. Like." You looked down at her book. "The Greek woman. What's-her-name. The face and the thousand ships and all that."
"Penelope," Kate suggested.
"Yes," you said, because that sounded like an answer that could be correct.
She shut the book and glared up at you. "You actually don't know anything, do you?"
You were forced to consider that she probably had been holding the book the right way up.
"There are lots of things we can't learn in books," you said, putting your fingers on the leather binding. Then you gasped and bit your lip, because she'd bent your little finger back. You didn't make any noise because Hal and Mortimer and God knew who else were still watching. You just, coolly and casually, wrested your hand out of her grasp, lifted it, and cradled it against your chest.
"Men don't fight over me, Lord Hotspur, because they understand I'm perfectly capable of fighting for myself. They don't come over here and bother me while I'm reading to tell me how pretty I am because they're afraid of me."
"I'm not," you told her.
She lifted her eyes to you. "Is that so?" And then she smiled.
It wasn't the first time you met her, but it was the one you would always remember.