In Kate Mortimer’s opinion, Harry Percy—generally known, to the other boys, at least, as Hotspur—is remarkably silly.
She knows that the other boys wouldn’t agree. After all, Harry wins all the games and isn’t half bad at making stirring if meaningless speeches, and most of the men Kate has observed do such things with annoying frequency.
What Harry Percy doesn’t have is any sense to go with these tedious but supposedly essential skills. In fact, Kate is beginning to suspect that he possesses a kind of anti-sense which subtracts equivalent amounts of rationality from his brain and liver, so that he always ends up with more anti-sense than he does reason or logic.
It’s this anti-sense that drives him to describe her in the very crudest of terms…as if he were talking about some common trollop from Cheapside Lane. It’s not as if she expects a boy of fourteen to start spouting stickily sentimental ballads, but she didn’t expect to hear quite so much discussion of various portions of her anatomy.
And, of course, he’s proclaiming this at the top of his lungs—and in front of her brother, not that Edmund is being any help at all, thanks ever so—and all the other boys are listening with speculative gleams in their eyes and the other girls are listening too, though they’re pretending not to, which means that she has to pretend not to, and the other girls are whispering so softly that she can just hear the sound but not the words, and some of the girls are sniggering behind their hands and the boys are whinnying like mules, and she can’t focus on the words on the page in front of her, and really, she would like to go die now. Preferably after strangling Hotspur the Idiot and then feeding the remains to a unicorn. And the way she feels right now, she would cross the world seven times to find that flesh-eating unicorn.
And then, naturally, Hal tries to start a fight, because that’s what Hal does—he manufactures trouble. Somehow, he’s never the source of trouble; like an alchemist mixing elements to create a catalyst, Hal stirs rage and fear and shame in everyone else, and he does it with the deftest of touches. If he weren’t a prince, he’d be a marvelous intelligencer. Every prince, potentate, pasha and pope would think that Hal was working solely for him, and everyone would be wrong. Hal only does what he does for his own amusement—or for his own benefit. Which, as far as Kate can tell, is usually the same thing.
She expects Edmund to throw a punch, because even if he is not the most zealous of protectors, he is still her brother, and for Harry to live up to his hot-headed nickname and deliver an uppercut in return, until they have both pounded each other into veritable paste and can therefore decide that honor has been served and that they can change the subject.
She does not expect Harry to take a deep breath and then walk away from the fight and over to her.
And oh, blessed Virgin Mary, the other girls are whispering and giggling even louder. And she can hear certain words now. “Suitor.” And “lover.”
He must be able to hear them. He’s not deaf. And since he can hear them, he probably thinks that she’s encouraging the other girls to call him those things. Maybe he even thinks that she likes the way he was talking. Maybe—oh, horrors!—he even thinks that she likes him.
She stares at her book with great concentration—no matter that she hasn’t turned a page in what seems like an hour—and refuses to acknowledge him. Perhaps, just perhaps, if she ignores him, he will leave and not make what amounts to a public declaration of affection.
"You're Kate," he says, looking awkward and confused.
Kate’s not sure why he feels the need to tell her who she is, but she decides to return the favor. “You’re Harry Hotspur.”
She doesn’t look up from her book, because she doesn’t need to. If she sits at just such an angle and positions her neck just so, she can look up at him with eyes that seem to be veiled by her lashes. She does, however, turn one page with infinite sloth.
"We were just talking. About you.”
"I heard.” Kate does her best to sounds as if her words are icicles. “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."
Oh, really! Is that what you call it? Kate turns another page—too soon, she knows, but she needs some form of distraction so that she won’t snap and say something that she and the rest of the family will regret profoundly for years.
He peers at the book, craning his neck as if to see what she’s reading and if, perchance, she’s holding the book upside down. He’s not going to learn much that way; the book’s written in Greek.
"Come now, Kate," he says, sounding remarkably patronizing for a boy no older than her. "A pretty girl like you doesn't need to be shy."
"I'm not shy,” Kate says with martyred patience. “I'm…” Offended? No, then he’ll think that what he says matters to me. And that’s not it at all. “…unimpressed."
"Now, now.” She can almost picture him patting a spaniel on the head and speaking in exactly that soothing, proprietary tone. “There was almost a fight over you."
For a moment, Kate wonders whether Eve hadn’t offered the apple to Adam but had chucked it at his head when he was being more than usually moronic. "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." And why, she tries to say with her tone, would I be flattered by a fight as foolish as that?
"There ought to be fights over you. There ought to be wars waged in your honour,” he says, and his voice fairly chimes with sincerity. Of course it does; Harry Percy is often sincere, usually about the wrong things. “Like”—and again he cranes his neck to get a glimpse of the book—“the Greek woman. What's-her-name. The face and the thousand ships and all that."
"Penelope," Kate says, keeping her gaze on her book because she can stare at that and not smile mischievously. Not that she has any reason to be mischievous. She knows she’s not teasing him at all, because there’s no earthly reason why she would do that. Though she might consider giving him a strawberry for trying, even so.
"Yes," he says, holding his head high and thrusting his chin out, despite sounding more than a tad unsure. It’s an old trick that every courtier’s child knows—if you can’t be certain, look certain. Given that everyone knows the trick, she wonders that anyone even bothers to try it any longer.
She slams the book shut. Never mind that this clearly spells that she’s getting irritated; she scarcely cares. "You actually don't know anything, do you?"
She says this, hoping that he’ll understand what she’s not saying. You don’t know anything about sense or courtesy or Greek myth. And I’d much rather have a suitor who doesn’t treat me as if I’m an anatomy lesson for him and his friends. Besides, I can’t tell you that it’s all right, because then you’ll think that what you did was acceptable, not that I was being polite and forgiving you.
A glimpse at his face says that he doesn’t grasp one syllable of this. And his next words confirm it.
"There are lots of things we can't learn in books," he replies, carefully positioning his fingers on the leather binding close to hers.
It’s probably a harmless remark. Probably. Unfortunately, there are boys at court—and a fair number of men, as well—who will do just this and then grab a girl’s hand and then shove her up against a wall or drag her down a dark corridor, well-born girls no less than servants. The servants don’t say anything because they don’t want to lose their hope of food and a steady wage; the nobles don’t say anything because they don’t want to lose their chance at a decent marriage and happiness. And though she doesn’t think that Harry is that sort—after all, he just compared her to Helen of Troy!—she knows that some of the boys he calls “friend” are. And Hal is a law unto himself. And they’re all watching.
She dares not send the silent message that she can be easily grabbed, easily had and easily tossed aside.
So she bends his little finger backwards. Not too hard—just enough to make him blanch and gasp. Just enough to send the proper message to the boys watching this exchange across the play yard.
He has style, for he refuses to scream. Instead, he wrests his hand from hers and presses it against his chest, his good hand cradling the injured one. He looks for all the world as if he is pledging her his heart.
Well, that’s rather clever. And she has to admire him for not fleeing or shrieking or loudly proclaiming that her actions were unjust. So she gives him a gift; she speaks plainly to him. She might as well. He’s clearly not picking up on her hints, though a toad would grasp them.
"Men don't fight over me, Lord Hotspur”—and she says this in a haughty tone because she said his nickname automatically, and that won’t send the message that she intends at all—“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.”
She studies his face as she says this, but he doesn’t smirk as if she’s telling the best joke in the world. Nor does he glance furtively at his friends, his expression and theirs smug and sly, saying silently that they’ll show her what fear is. He simply seems to be listening, and she doesn’t quite know how to deal with that.
And when she finishes, he looks at her with a perplexed expression. At least, she thinks it’s perplexity. “I’m not afraid of you.”
Impossibly, he seems to be telling the truth. He’s not intimidated by her brains; he’s not shocked at the thought of a girl protecting herself; he doesn’t even seem to be angry that she bent back his finger. He admitted what he said without turning that into a brazen boast. And he hasn’t stopped being awkwardly complimentary, despite not getting much encouragement.
Harry Percy, known as Hotspur, is a remarkably silly boy.
But, as she lifts her gaze to meet his, says, “Is that so? You’re not afraid at all?” and smiles, she decides that it wouldn’t be altogether bad to be a bit silly with him from time to time.