Just now, Katsa never wanted to see the inside of an inn or the backside of a horse again. She had been travelling all winter long, around Monsea and across the southern lands between it and Lienid. Now at last she was on the return journey, but the sea travel she loved wasn't nearly as enjoyable in early spring. The seas around the island were cold and rough, the skies a uniform dull grey even when they weren't spitting sleet.
When the ship put her ashore in the tiny cove below the towering cliff of Po's home, it was twilight and the white-washed buildings perched above shone against the darkening sky. The stone stairs cut into the cliff face were slick with icy spray, but Katsa ran up them as though they were broad and sun-warmed.
Po was waiting for her at the great wooden door to the castle, of course. Provoking man, impossible to surprise with his Grace. She threw herself at him anyway. "I missed you." She wrapped her arms around him and buried her head in his shoulder, inhaling the unique combination of sweat and soap and him, thinking of all the things she'd missed while she was away. Chief among them…
His laugh rumbled against her cheek. "If you're not careful, your thoughts will make me blush."
"You're just too delicate," she teased, and with a last fierce squeeze released him. "I need food, a bath and bed. And a sparring match, but that can wait until tomorrow."
The bath came first; Katsa wanted to wash the salt crust off her skin before she sat down to eat. They ate in the room they shared when she stayed here, at the top of the lone square tower which loomed over the rest of Po's castle. The tall windows were still shuttered against spring storms, but Katsa could smell wet earth and melting snow on the wind.
They talked of Po's cousin Bitterblue, the young Queen of Monsea, and how she was growing into her rule. "You wouldn't recognize her, Po. It's not just that she's taller. She used to be so quiet; now she talks, and even sings." Katsa smiled. "She still carries her knife everywhere, though. Helda had a little arm sheath made for her." They shared a grin at the thought of proper Helda unbending so far as to arm her royal charge.
"What are your plans for the spring?" Po reached for a dumpling and popped it into his mouth. The gold rings on his fingers and in his ears gleamed, catching the firelight as his mismatched eyes did.
Katsa shrugged, knowing that Po would sense her indecision even though he couldn't see her. "I could stay for a while. The Council's growing, they don't need me to do every little thing for them any more. And Bitterblue is managing very well, especially with Helda there." She took two more of the tiny sweet preserved plums she loved. "I could teach the local children again."
"I'm sure they'll be here in the morning," Po said. "No doubt the news went round the town as soon as Captain Faun's ship was sighted. I kept up their lessons over the winter, and they'll be eager to show off what they've learned."
"Good. I'd like to see how they're coming along." Katsa grinned. "And now it's time to see how you've kept up."
That the two of them hadn't sparred in months didn't matter. Once in the training room, they dropped smoothly into the game of strike and hold and block – and it was mostly a game, now, as fiercely as it was played. Katsa loved trying to catch Po by surprise; his Grace made it nearly impossible, but then she had the speed and strength of hers to compensate. And she'd learned a few things about using his Grace against him…
At her deliberately distracting thought, Po stumbled and Katsa had him. She pounced, throwing him to the rush mat and locking his right arm behind his back. "Are you beaten?" She tugged his arm tighter and nuzzled the nape of his neck. Her lips slid down the curve of his ear, behind it, over his earlobe. She thought about how his mouth would taste.
Po took advantage of Katsa's own distraction and threw her off; she had an instant's warning, but not enough to stop him getting free. She let him flip her over onto her back and hover above her. His shining eyes looked at her without focusing on her face, and she traced the line of one eyebrow with her finger. Stop playing and kiss me, she thought.
"Dear Katsa, it's your game to call," he said, and bent to obey.
Several minutes later, Katsa murmured, "I should go away more often."
"Not just yet." Po's arms tightened around her.
The next morning Katsa watched two children demonstrate how to stab each other, and had never been happier.
"No, no, Russet!" She stepped in only after the smaller girl made an error which would have seen her on the ground at the mercy of any opponent less inexperienced. "If you stand like that, Emeral's foot can come in under your knee–" she demonstrated with a gentle prod rather than a kick, "and disable you."
Katsa moved back to stand next to Po and watch the next round. She could smell sap rising in the leafless trees around the courtyard, although the brightly-coloured tiles were still icy under her feet. It never became as cold here as it had in her uncle Randa's stone castle in the Middluns, but the damp wind that drove needles of freezing rain into her bones was its own kind of misery. She wasn't sorry to have missed the worst of a Lienid winter.
Po's head turned. In a moment, Katsa too sensed the approaching messengers, their breath huffing and feet slapping on the damp stone of the stairs to the castle. By the time a head appeared above the level of the courtyard floor she was waiting next to the bare trees that flanked the last flight of steps. Maybe it was a message from Oll, with news of the Council and the next missions it planned.
Instead it was Oll himself, with Lord Giddon trailing behind.
"What are you doing here?" Katsa demanded. "Is something wrong?"
"We're happy to see you here, of course," Po put in smoothly, and Katsa rolled her eyes at his relentless diplomacy. She was truly happy to see Oll again; her uncle's spymaster was one of the few men she trusted. Meeting Giddon again was more awkward, since he'd had the bad sense at one point to think she'd want to marry him. He did his best to greet her as formally as though that had never happened, however, and she followed suit.
"It's just that you usually send messages..." she fumbled for an explanation.
Oll smiled. "Katsa is correct. We came in person because I wanted to talk about something it's safest not to put in writing, and I wasn't sure when you – both of you – might visit the Middluns next."
Katsa's heart lurched inside her chest. She didn't look at Po, but she could feel his attention sharpen. Had Raffin let something slip about Po's Grace? She couldn't think of anything else that might not be safe to put in a letter. She forced her panic into a tight ball in her gut and said, "Best come inside then. We can talk about whatever it is over a meal, and you can stay for the night."
The lamps flickered in the wind gusting through the gaps in the shutters, and curtains of shadow fluttered across the ceiling. Katsa's Grace kept her from feeling the cold, but when she saw Oll and Giddon shiver she rose from the table to stoke the little porcelain stove that heated the dining room. Now that they had eaten, and the few servants Po employed had cleared the dishes and left, she couldn't wait any longer to hear Oll's news. She sat down, cleared her throat, and stared at Oll expectantly.
Oll clasped his hands on the table in front of him and glanced at Giddon. "Lady Katsa. When you founded the Council, we were few and isolated. Now our members include people of all ranks and from each of the kingdoms. Together we've become strong, and we should make use of that strength."
"How, exactly?" Katsa asked. She didn't see how this could be alluding to Po's Grace, but perhaps Oll would make himself clearer.
"Until now, the Council's been limited to a rescue here or a raid diverted there. We can go on doing that, but wouldn't it make more sense to eliminate the cause of these lawless actions? To ensure that as many lands as possible are ruled wisely?" Oll leaned forward, meeting and holding Katsa's gaze as he almost never did – to demonstrate his certainty, she supposed.
"It might," Katsa said warily, "but how would we do that?"
Oll sat back in his chair, tapping his fingers on the armrests. "Thigpen is causing more and more trouble. Each day he threatens or causes violence and each day the Council spends our resources on stopping him. Apart from the waste, sooner or later even a fool like Thigpen will think to wonder why his plans are always diverted. We need to find a wiser king for Estill."
Katsa blinked. Her stomach turned over. "Are you suggesting that we start a civil war? That's not what the Council was created for."
"Who chooses this wiser ruler?" Po asked. "The Council? And how will we know if they are truly trustworthy?"
"I've spent the past year spying for Oll in Estill," Giddon said. "I've learned much about Thigpen's underlords and I can name several candidates, all of whom would make a better king."
Katsa knew that Giddon wasn't particularly intelligent, but she couldn't believe that sensible Oll would countenance such a reckless scheme. "You can't be serious. You could expose the Council and divide a land into factions, if not outright war. Things in Estill will be even worse."
"What if it works?" Oll countered. "Then we shall have another land with a decent ruler, and a chance for its people to live in peace and safety."
Katsa slammed her open palms down on the table. "And what do you plan to do with Thigpen? Am I expected to assassinate him?"
"Of course not!" Giddon exclaimed.
She ignored him. "Or will we pay Murgon to throw him in prison, as he did to Po's grandfather?"
Oll cleared his throat. "The Council thought that perhaps Thigpen could be persuaded to go into exile in Lienid, or Monsea. Both lands are isolated enough to keep him away from trouble."
Po's back stiffened, and Katsa felt his temper boil. "So I'm to be your jailer," he said. "Or my cousin is. If it comes to a choice between me or her, I'll take on the responsibility, but I don't think it's a wise idea. I have six ambitious brothers; who knows what Thigpen might promise any or all of them to win his freedom?" He directed his eyes at Oll and Giddon, and they looked away.
"It is the best thing to do," Giddon muttered. "Even if Lienid princelings don't agree. Fine for you to say that, here on this safe little island–"
"Enough." Katsa shoved her chair back from the table with a scrape. "If the Council chooses to do this, I can't stop you. But don't look to me or Po for help. With any of it." She stood up and slammed herself out of the room.
Po found her in the training room, of course, wielding a heavy staff, striking the practice post in an effort to exhaust her muscles and keep her brain from whirring. "You won't let me fight you when I'm angry," she panted. "I have to hit something." She drove such a hard blow at the post that the wooden staff cracked in her hands and split in two.
Katsa dropped the pieces of the staff, turned and leaped at Po in a single fluid movement. He ducked, feeling the wind of her strike pass through his hair, and swept her legs out from under her. She tumbled to the mat and sprawled there, staring at the ceiling. He lay down on his back beside her and listened to her breathing gradually slow.
"I just don't know what to do," she said finally. "Yes, something has to be done about Thigpen – but this! It will cause so many other problems in the future. How can Oll not see that?"
"In a way, he's right. The Council has grown large enough that we need to think of new ways to do its work. But I doubt that overthrowing kings is the best choice." He rolled over on his side and pushed the tangled curls out of her eyes.
"And what happens when they decide Randa's next?" Katsa demanded. "I want Raffin to be king as soon as anyone – sooner. But I don't intend to depose my uncle."
Po wriggled closer and pulled Katsa into his body. She nestled her heated face against his shoulder and sighed. "What we need to do," he said slowly, "is find those who will be the next rulers – show them there's a better way to handle the affairs of a kingdom. Like your work teaching the children how to defend themselves. It all comes down to teaching."
"Not just the rulers," Katsa said. "The underlords, and ordinary people too. We need to convince them it's better to work with each other than to nurse ambition."
Po shrugged, making Katsa's head bob on his shoulder. "People will always be ambitious. Every one of my brothers wants to be king of Lienid eventually, but they won't resort to killing to get it."
Katsa snorted. "No, they use other weapons." Another sigh. "I never imagined something like this when I started the Council. How could it happen?"
"You killed Leck," he told her. Katsa's breath hitched, and she opened her mouth. Po forestalled the angry defense he could feel building in her. "It was for the right reasons, and there was nothing else you could have done. But that was likely what planted the first seed of this idea in Oll's mind."
Katsa was silent for so long Po was afraid he'd offended her beyond forgiveness with the simple truth. But he couldn't lie to her, ever. "You're right, I think," she admitted at last. "Oll would never have considered such a ruthless solution before Leck." She rolled over and propped her chin on her hands, staring at him – he could feel the intense regard of the bright blue and green eyes he remembered so vividly. "So how do you teach someone to be a ruler?"
"You'll think of something," he promised her. "I know you will. In the meantime, teaching children to stand up for themselves is a start."
Katsa's slow smile warmed him. "I suppose it is."