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The Most Talked About Night Of The Season

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Maisie was in no mood for a ball.

She always felt like a fool in formal wear. The ball was full of Pixies and Slyphs looking lovely in ensembles much like hers, but delicate ringlets and a ruffled dress were far less flattering on a seven foot tall Lob covered in hair.

Unfortunately this was her best chance to speak to the Queen, and that was worth any level of embarassment. So she sat in a shady corner under some trees and watched.

This would all be much easier if she could just tell people that Prince Ruadh was planning to assassinate the Queen. But who'd take the word of an upstart house spirit over the heir to the throne? And what could they do if they believed her? Even Lord Tam had been powerless to intervene when Prince Ruadh had tried to get Maisie's family banished from the Court. Then as now, the only person powerful enough to keep the Prince in check was Queen Mab herself, and all of Maisie's attempts to contact the Queen had been rebuffed. She was beginning to suspect that the Queen's guards might be in the Prince's pay. That or they just didn't like her.

Speaking of Lord Tam, he'd made her promise to "save him a dance", as if he'd have any competition. The ball had been going for some time, had he changed his mind? Maisie had no interest in dancing, but it would be good to see a friendly face. Perhaps she could even share her worries...

Or perhaps Lord Tam's strange kindnesses were a sign that he was being paid to keep an eye on her.

Maisie sighed. If her father and stepfather were here she might have talked to them, but they were away, and Lord Tam was the only other person she knew high born enough to be here tonight.

"Why so sad, my dear?"

Lord Tam smile at her as he approached, looking very elegant in his tailored suit. "Come, let us dance and take your mind off your troubles, whatever they are. Though I must apologise in advance for making you bend so low." He gently flapped his long wings and barely avoided hitting another guest. "No room for flight, you see."

Maisie looked down at the kind face of her friend and felt awful for suspecting him of being a spy. Not that it mattered, there was no way Maisie could discuss possible treason in such a public location: Lord Tam might not be the Prince's accomplice, but others in this crowd would be. Still, it was good to feel less alone.

"You are very considerate," said Maisie.

"Considerate? For dancing with a charming woman?" Lord Tam fanned out his wings in mock surprise. "Well then, if that is all that is required I must be deemed considerate indeed. Generous to a fault, even. For I have been known to dance with four or five charming women a night!"

Maisie laughed. Not many here would consider her charming. She was Unseelie, and low born at that, while Lord Tam was Seelie gentry born and bred. But if he did not wish to be thanked for his kindness, she would not press the issue. Maisie let Lord Tam take one of her fingers in his hand and followed him out onto the dancefloor.

Maisie could not claim to be a fine dancer. While high born folk like Prince Ruadh and Lord Tam were learning to waltz she had been being taught to scrub pots and darn socks. She'd learned a lot about being a Proper Seelie since her father's marriage to Earl Greenlight, but there was only so much her tutors could do to make up for twenty years of training towards a much less glamourous life. So Maisie did her best to follow Lord Tam's lead and hoped noone noticed him wince every time one of her shuffling steps hit his dainty toes.

It didn't help that the glade was dazzlingly bright. Floating chandeliers filled with enchanted candles threw light across sparkling dresses and the reflective marble floor. The air was heady with a hundred competing perfumes and glamours, and the wine Maisie had drunk at dinner was starting to go to her head. She was having trouble staying upright, let alone keeping track of her feet. But she had to concentrate.

One advantage of Maisie's unfashionable height was that it gave her a good view of the other dancers. Tiny Pixies like Lord Tam flitted between elegant Si and mysterious Dhu, while Gnomes and Spriggan silently refilled punch bowls and cleaned up broken glass. There must be at least a hundred couples, fairy rings, and single dancers. But nowhere in the throng could Maisie see Prince Ruadh or his cronies. And more worryingly, she could not find the Queen.

"Maisie?" Lord Tam looked up at her in mild reproof, his small hand gently pulling her in the direction of the dance. She'd been so busy looking she'd forgotten to dance! Maisie smiled apologetically and put her mind back to following the pattern of steps.

"I'm surprised not to see the Queen here tonight," she said, lightly, as her mind silently counted out left two three right two three.

"Oh I am sure she will be here in time," said Lord Tam, moving through the same steps as if it were as easy as breathing. "But her Majesty cannot be expected to arrive with the rest of us rabble. She must make an entrance."

"I see," said Maisie. Yet another facet of court life she needed to remember. Not that the Queen would be arriving anywhere if the Prince had his way. Keeping her tone light, she added "I don't see Prince Ruadh, either, is he likely to make a dramatic entrance too?"

"Oh let's not talk about Ruadh," said Lord Tam. "After the way he treated you his very name makes me sick to my stomach. We are young, beautiful, and full of somebody else's wine. Let us enjoy the dance while we can."

Maisie blushed and nodded her acquiesence, but was secretly frustrated. Under other circumstances she would be happy to forget about Prince Ruadh, but right now she had to think about him whether she wanted to or not.

Maybe she should confide in Lord Tam after all. He had proven himself a true friend too many times for her to doubt his loyalty. And perhaps his sparkling mind could think of a solution where Maisie's leaden one could not. But first she had to find some way to talk to him alone.

Resisting the temptation to pull him up to her level, Maisie leaned her face down towards Lord Tam, her back almost bent double to make up for their massive difference in height. He looked up at her in surprise, a faint blush on his nut brown cheeks.

"Miss Greenlight?"

"Lord Tam," she mumbled softly, "I was wondering..."

And then Maisie felt a soft blow against her back, and heard a sound of indignation. Oh no.

She turned around and was faced with a very short and very angry looking Fairy.

"Keep your...posterior out of my face," he fumed. "I nearly knocked into the Dhu ambassador!" Sure enough, a few steps away was the Dhu ambassador and her two partners, three thin green figures gently swaying in place as if to music only they could hear.

"I'm so sorry," said Maisie, horrified. She was in enough trouble as it was. She could just imagine the disaster if the ambassador had taken an accidental knock as a deliberate shove, the Dhu were powerful mages and notoriously violent about percieved insults. The last Seelie ambassador to run afoul of Dhu social mores had come home in pieces.

The Fairy seemed gratified by her miserable expression. "Well, good. Just see it doesn't happen again." He gave a curt bow and turned back to his date, a translucent Sprite who'd watched the exchange with transparent boredom. "At least your date isn't half your height," thought Maisie. Not that she could think of anyone she'd rather be dancing with than Lord Tam.

She felt the gentle pressure of his hand against hers. "Is everything all right?"

"Oh, yes, I just bumped into someone," she said. "This dancing business is harder than it looks."

"Ah, my apologies," said Lord Tam. "I sometimes forget how new and difficult all this is for you. If you'd rather stop..."

"Oh, no, I really am enjoying it," said Maisie. "Although...I would like to talk to you in private, when you have a moment."

"Of course," he said. "Here, the dance is almost over, let us take a seat."

Sure enough it was only a moment later that the waltz came to an end, the harpists and fiddle players performing one last chord before falling silent. Maisie bowed to Lord Tam and gratefully took her seat at the edge of the floor on a moss covered stone. Lord Tam followed, flitting up past seats at his own height to a stone column that allowed him to face her at an almost equal level.

"You're not going to dance again?" she asked.

Lord Tam shook his head. "I've donated my time to the fair folk of the court generously enough for one evening. wished to speak to me about something?"

"I do!" said Maisie. "But...I'm not sure this is private enough."

"Indeed?" said Lord Tam. "Well that is easily fixed." He snapped his fingers and there was a puff of magic. The sounds of the ball became muffled behind a sparkling translucent sphere centered around Lord Tam.

"Oh!" said Maisie, delighted. She had yet to tire of the novelty of magic. Her own skills were far more mundane.

"Private enough?" asked Lord Tam, with a smile. "People can still see in, so your reputation is in no danger. But noone should be able to hear what we say."

"Yes, this will do nicely," said Maisie. "Thank you." She took a deep breath and tried to get her thoughts in order. Lord Tam leaned closer with an encouraging expression.

"It's about Prince Ruadh," she began.

Lord Tam widened his eyes in surprise and almost fell off his pedestal. "You wish to talk to me privately...about Prince Ruadh?"

Maisie nodded. "I don't know if you remember, but after he tried to banish my family I swore I'd get revenge."

Lord Tam's delicate brows furrowed in concern. "And I told you it was suicide. Maisie...Miss Greenlight...Prince Ruadh is not a man to be trifled with. If you are planning some sort of retribution I must beg you to reconsider. Consider how your poor father would feel were anything to happen to you. Consider your stepfather. Consider..."

"Lord Tam, stop." Maisie put her hand on his shoulder and he stiffened. Maisie pulled back her hand and hoped she hadn't offended him. Seelie were so much more reserved than she was used to. "I know. I swore I'd get revenge, but then I talked to some old friends in the Unseelie Court and the things I learned...they persuaded me that you were right. That there was no way I could take on Prince Ruadh and survive."

"I am glad to hear it," said Lord Tam. He crossed his arms peevishly. "Although you could have simply listened to me in the first place."

"Yes, and I should have," said Maisie. "But I didn't know you as well back then." She didn't add that for a while after the clash with the Prince she'd been inclined to view all Seelie folk as her enemy, including Lord Tam. Thankfully she'd had many better experiences since then. "The important thing is what else I learned. As you know Prince Ruadh is not above using Unseelie minions to do his bidding. And Seelie money only buys so much loyalty to a man who openly despises my kind."

"I can imagine," said Lord Tam. "So what did they tell you?"

"That Prince Ruadh has spies throughout the Court, including within the ambassadorial staff. That he has been making excuses to use the Queen's royal seal. And that he's been seen buying the ingredients for Cwensbane."

Lord Tam went pale. The only reason to use Cwensbane instead of a simpler and less dangerous poison was if your target was a Fairy Queen (or King, in those rare cases where one existed). "Who else have you told?" he exclaimed. "We need to warn her Majesty!"

"I tried," said Maisie. "But the guards wouldn't let me into see her. And beyond the Queen herself I didn't know who to trust. I have no hard evidence, who would believe my word over his?"

"I would," said Lord Tam firmly. "Ah, Miss Greenlight...I wish you'd come to me sooner. If we can just get access to the Queen I'm sure we can...oh. wait"

He snapped his fingers again and the bubble around them vanished. But the silence around them did not. The musicians had put down their instruments again, and now the crowd too was silent, as if waiting for something. Naturally everyone but Maisie had noticed whatever unspoken queue had sent the room into silent anticipation.

"Is it..."

And then the musicians started playing again, a triumphant march this time and much louder than before. The lights dimmed and the air grew chill, as if some unseen force had sucked all the energy out of the grove. The music swelled and there was a flash of light in the centre of the dance floor as a great wind pushed the dancers outward. The golden glow in the center of the maelstrom began to take shape as the wind died down, finally solidifying into the shape of the her majesty Queen Mab of the Seelie Court.

"Well there's the Queen," said Lord Tam.

At first the Queen was all Maisie could see, she glowed so brightly that all else around her was shadow. But then the glow began to fade and Maisie could see that Queen Mab had brought quite an entourage: ladies in waiting, guards, and of course, her heir. The Queen's brother stepped from the shadows to take his place by her side, his face for once free of it's usual scowl. "And there's Prince Ruadh," said Maisie. Given the circumstances, his happy expression felt like a bad omen.

"Let me talk to her Majesty," said Lord Tam. "Not to malign your skills of persuasion, but I think things might go better if, uh..."

"It's quite all right," said Maisie. "I know her Majesty doesn't like Unseelie folk. And I would hate for that dislike to lead to her brother taking the throne." The Queen had forced the Prince to drop his suit against Maisie's father, but she had made it abundantly clear at the time that it was the law she had respect for, not upstart former Unseelie. Which was still more respect than Maisie and her father would get from the Prince, if he ever took the throne.

Lord Tam nodded and neatly jumped off the pillar to the ground.

Instead of heading straight for the Queen, Lord Tam took a meandering path, smiling and waving to various aquaintances as he went. Once he reached the Queen he recieved a rather less friendly reception: though Lord Tam was far more popular in the Court than Maisie, he was hardly a favoured member of the Queen's inner circle.

Maisie strained to hear what they were saying but they were too far away. Lord Tam gestured and smiled and bowed very deep, but the Queen's expression remained irritated. Eventually she rolled her eyes and waved him away, impatient to get to dancing. Yet his expression as he walked back towards Maisie seemed pleased.

"She has agreed to a private audience after she has finished greeting the ambassadors," he said. "I told her I had a private message from my reclusive aunt Donalda, the Queen has been begging for an augury from her for years. Hopefully her Majesty will be grateful enough for us saving her life not to resent the lie."

"Oh, that's wonderful. Thank you so much."

"Thank you for your confidence in me. I'm sorry I criticised you earlier, I know your experiences in this Court have not been the kind to encourage trust."

"Not...not with you," said Maisie, self consciously. Lord Tam smiled and Maisie smiled back.

They sat together and watched Prince Ruadh and the Queen as the ball continued. Maisie tried to convince herself that Prince Ruadh would not act tonight in front of all these guests. How could he administer the poison without anyone noticing? The Queen ate nothing without passing it to her food tasters first, and her guards would protect her from any assassin. But Maisie was still uneasy.

Finally the room hushed again and it was announced that the Queen was to officially welcome the Dhu delegation to the Seelie court. Maisie peered to see as the Queen stepped onto a small dias at the opposite end of the grove. Her attendants circled around her: closest were her guards, then her ladies in waiting, and then various hangers on, all standing as close to the centre of attention as protocol allowed. All except for Prince Ruadh, who let himself be passively jostled almost to the edge of the dias.

"Is it just me," whispered Maisie, "Or is Prince Ruadh standing unusually far from the spotlight?"

"Oh," said Lord Tam, "Oh no I think you're right."

The Queen had started to speak, her voice magnified to an almost painful volume. "Your attention please! Tonight we are delighted to welcome Ambassador Claudette of the Dhu Forest to the Seelie Court. May this be the beginning of a new friendship between our peoples."

The ambassador ambled on to the dias and gave a dignified bow to much applause. Nobody wanted to appear unenthusiastic about peace with the Dhu, not even those who thought violence between the two peoples was inevitable. Not when the Queen had made her preferences so clear.

The Dhu spoke in a low rumble, her words slow and distinct. "We thank you for this honour," she said sonorously. "As a token of our esteem we bring a gift from the High Overlord, a perfumed music box carved from a single piece of Heartwood. To recieve a gift of Heartwood is the highest honour the Dhu can bestow. "

The Queen smiled. "Our thanks indeed, ambassador, this is such a..." She gave a small cough and blinked her eyes. From the looks of things the perfume was very potent. "...a generous gift. Ah, and the lock is keyed to my seal, how ingenious."

Maisie's heart started to beat double time. She stood up and shouted as loud as she could. "Your majesty, stop!" she cried. "The box is poisoned!"

"What was that?" said the Queen. "Did someone speak?" She was too far away! Without magical amplification noone could hear Maisie's voice from the dias. "Lord Tam, help!" cried Maisie.

He nodded and clenched his hands in readiness for casting magic. But instead of casting at Maisie he flew straight up into the air, causing everyone in the grove to stop and stare at him. Then he frowned in concentration and cast a fireball straight at the Queen, exploding the box and causing her to cry out in pain and surprise.

Maisie gasped. The crowd roared.

A phlanx of guards rushed to protect the Queen, quickly surrounding her and spiriting her away to safety. Other guards raised their hands in practised forms and Lord Tam fell under a wave of paralysing spells, his arms and wings roughly bound to his body by enchanted chains. Maisie started running towards him, but the jostling crowd made it hard to move. Prince Ruadh stood on the stage and watched his trap go up in flames with a look of horror and shock, but did not take take long to try and turn circumstances back in his favour.

"Bring me the traitor!" he cried, his eyes wide and fierce. The crowd parted, jeering as the bound form of Lord Tam was dragged to the dias. Prince Ruadh cried out to his audience, his voice magnified by the amplification spell still blanketing the dias. "You all witnessed this traitor attempt to assasinate our beloved Queen. And the penalty for treason is death!" He raised his hands. Maisie let out a whimper of despair as she raced towards them. Had Lord Tam just sacrified his own life to save the Queen's? Who would believe them if they tried to explain the truth?

"Halt!" rumbled the Dhu ambassador. Prince Ruadh frowned, evidently, impatient to destroy Lord Tam before he had the chance to explain his actions and cast suspicion on the true traitor. Maisie bit her lip, hoping that somehow the Dhu would save Lord Tam.

"Would you have me let him go? He tried to kill our Queen!" Prince Ruadh narrowed his eyes. "Or is there a reason he chose your visit as the time to attack? Perhaps as a demonstration to his true masters?" Oh thought Maisie. So the Dhu were not just convenient couriers for his trap. Prince Ruadh was deliberately trying to start up a war. It would certainly have distracted from any questions over the Queen's death.

The ambassador harumphed in impatience. "We do not know this man," she said. "But he destroyed our gift. And for that he will die by our hands." Oh dear. That...was not really much of an improvement. Maisie put renewed vigour into getting past the other guests without accidentally standing on anyone.

Prince Ruadh glowered. "How do I know you won't just let him go?" He sounded almost petulant.

"We will kill him here," said the ambassador. She began to raise her long clawed hands. "We will make his blood boil and his flesh burn and all will see what happens to those who desecrate the generosity of the Dhu. There must be no delay." Maisie could see them all now: the Dhu, the guards, Prince Ruadh and poor Lord Tam. He looked so small and vulnerable, bound in chains and surrounded by larger and more powerful foes. She had to get to him.

"Oh," said Prince Ruadh. "Well that does seem..."

Maisie finally pushed her way through the last of the on lookers between her and the dias. "Stop!" she shouted. "It's all my fault!"

The Dhu turned to stare at her. "Who is this?"

"One of Lord Tam's floozies," said Prince Ruadh dismissively. "A mere Abbey Lobber. Pay her no mind."

Maisie gulped in air, catching her breath. "I told him it was a trap," she said. "I said the box contained poison and he believed me and that's why he destroyed it. Lord Tam was trying to save the Queen, not hurt her." Lord Tam widened his eyes over his bonds and made a sound of protest through his gag. He didn't seem very happy to be saved.

"Poison?" cried Prince Ruadh, his voice cracking slightly. "That's ridiculous!"

Not much of a liar when you're put on the spot, are you? thought Maisie.

"It was you," she said. "You stole the Queen's royal seal and put Cwensbane inside the box. The plan was to kill her and start a war with the Dhu."

A low muttering came from the Dhu delegation. "It was Prince Ruadh who suggested we use the royal seal," mused the ambassador. "He was most helpful for one who has expressed so much hatred for our people."

Maisie turned to the audience, trying to make herself sound as strong and sure of herself as the Queen. "I have witnesses who saw Prince Ruadh buying the ingredients for Cwensbane."

"Lies," said Prince Ruadh. "No doubt these 'witnesses' are just some of your Unseelie friends. We all know your kind cannot be trusted!"

Now the crowd started muttering. Unfortunately they seemed to be muttering that he had a point.

"Just wait," said Maisie. "The Queen had enough exposure to the poison that she should start to experience symptoms soon. Hopefully she will survive, but she will still have a cough and reddened skin."

"But the Dhu have said they cannot wait," said the Prince cheerfully. "The traitor must die, and die now. I wonder, will they execute the one who destroyed their precious gift, or the one who ordered that it should happen? If I may make a suggestion, Ambassador, I would kill them both." Lord Tam made a sound of disagreement.

The Ambassador looked at Prince Ruadh, Lord Tam, and Maisie in turn. There was death in her eyes, but also a question. Maisie stared back, willing the Dhu to make the right choice. After a long moment the Dhu seemed to make up her mind and turned to consider the clamoring crowd.

"Kill them both!" came a bloodthirsty cry. "Spare Lord Tam!" came another "It's all the Lob's fault!"

Maisie reminded herself that fairies are a bloodthirsty lot. They would probably be happy with any execution as long as they got to see some gore. And while it would have been nice to get the crowd on her side, the Court was just too used to seeing the Dhu and Unseelie as the villains and their own people as the heroes.

Luckily, their opinion wasn't the only one that mattered.

The ambassador's eyes glistened as she pointed a long green claw at Prince Ruadh. "Wait," he said, incredulously. "You believe her? Over me?"

The Ambassador's hands began to glow.

A guard tried to shield Prince Ruadh but was rebuffed by one of the other Dhu. The delegation drew together, and began to cast a spell. Maisie felt her limbs become heavy and her body weak. She couldn't move! Several of the guards cried out in alarm: it seemed they were paralysed too. Others, able to move, tried to render aid but were stopped by an invisible barrier surrounding the dias.

After that none of the guards could even get close. The crowd rushed forward in alarm, but to no avail. The Dhu magics were too strong.

The prince made a strangled sound of pain. "You can't kill me! I'm the Queen's brother!"

"You are nothing," said the ambassador. The crowd cried out in anger. How dare she insult their Prince!

"But what of the peace?" croaked Prince Ruadh, as his skin began to turn an unpleasant shade of red.

What an awful man. He even made his death annoying. Maisie tried her voice and was happy to discover that she could still speak, albeit with some effort. "He...has a point," she said, regretfully. "Ambassador, if you kill him now without a trial, it will be taken as an act of war."

"Then there will be war." The Dhu twisted her hands, causing Prince Ruadh to fall to his knees. Some of the ball guests began to throw makeshift weapons at the barrier, and those who could cast magic bombarded the dias with all the spells they could muster. Maisie watched in horror as some of the spells rebounded and hit innocent bystanders. The roar was deafening.

One of the other Dhu shuffled his feet. "All respect, ambassador, but perhaps..."

The ambassador's eyes twitched and she bared her teeth. The Dhu fell silent.

"Please." Maisie tried to reach the ambassador, but was still stuck. "I'm sure the Queen will let you choose the manner of his execution," she said, not actually sure of that at all. "We just need to prove that his conviction is fair."

The ambassador narrowed her eyes. Then she twisted her lips into a grimace and gave a long sigh.

"Very well," she said, letting her hands fall to her sides. "He will die. But we will wait. The High Overlord would not be pleased were we to start a war with this Court, even over a matter of such importance." She glared at Maisie and then at the rest of the Seelie Court. "But we will not relinquish him until we have seen your Queen and we have been persuaded that justice will be done."

It took a while for the Queen to arrive. Several high ranking members of the Court argued that this might all be some elaborate trap, and that the Queen should stay away until the army arrived and the Dhu were successfully vanquished. Others argued that there should be no negotiation with kidnappers, and that if the Dhu truly wanted peace, they would let the proper authorities take charge. The Dhu reacted to both arguments with nettled contempt.

Maisie caught Lord Tam's eye and tried to give him an encouraging smile. He didn't look very comfortable in his chains, but seemed to smile back at her regardless. Unfortunately loosening his bonds would require loosening the hold on the guards who'd bound him, and that was not something the Dhu were currently willing to consider. At least they'd shut up Prince Ruadh with a silencing spell.

At last the Queen arrived, re-entering the grove in a relatively understated flash of light. She waved off concerned guards and courtiers and approached the dias. You didn't have to look at her for long to see that she was angry, determined, and covered in a bright red rash.

A sussurus went through the crowd. Maisie smiled grimly at Prince Ruadh. Explain that she thought.

"Dear brother," rasped Queen Mab, her hand placed on the barrier. "Did you really think I would be that easy to kill?"

After that things went surprisingly quickly.

Not everyone was convinced that Maisie was telling the truth, of course, even with the evidence of the Queen's condition. But the Queen was convinced and that was enough to have Lord Tam released and Prince Ruadh bound in his stead. Negotiations about how exactly Prince Ruadh would die were less quick to resolve, but Maisie was happy to leave those details to the diplomats.

"How do you feel?" she asked Lord Tam. He was stamping his feet and rubbing the circulation back into his hands as the two of them waited for a healer to be done treating the more badly injured members of the crowd.

"Alive," he said. "Which is a step up from how I thought I would be feeling at this point." He shook out his wings. "Wait a moment, I want to try something." He made a little jump into the air, flapping his wings. Within a few beats he was bobbing up and down at the same level as Maisie.

"Don't tire yourself out," said Maisie. She would love to be able to fly, but it looked like a lot of work.

"Had to make sure they still work!" said Lord Tam. "Those chains were tight!"

"Oh," said Maisie. "That didn't even occur to me! I'm glad they weren't damaged."

"Wings grow back," said Lord Tam with a shrug. He fluttered closer and leaned in to give her a kiss on the cheek. "That's for saving my life," he said, with a smile before gently floating back to the ground.

"Oh," said Maisie, more happily this time. Lord Tam was shuffling his feet and watching her with a worried expression. She shuffled closer and bent down towards him. His eyes got very wide. "This is something I've been wanting to try," she said, and picked him up in both hands before giving him a firm embrace. He was warm and surprisingly light and smelled like good clean earth. "That's for saving all of us," she said.

"You are most welcome," he coughed. Maisie realised she was holding him a little too tight, and put him gently back down on the ground. They smiled gently at each other, neither quite sure what to say.

"So...." said Lord Tam. "Duchess Brix is having a soiree in two weeks. Terribly dull, of course, these things always are, but...might I request the honour of your first dance? "

Maisie grinned and gave a delicate curtsey. "I wouldn't miss it for the world."