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A kind of loving

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Two months before the wedding

There are days, still, when I feel like a traitor. The worst of it is, it’s often not Oscar who I feel like a traitor to.

The girl my parents raised is still in my head, still pointing out that while I kept the letter of my vows to him, I broke the spirit. I pursued my own course and, in the end, my own advancement, even though it meant leaving his side. But most days I can quiet her. I made nothing worse for him by my decision; in the end, he benefited more than he would have done had I simply accepted my punishment and accompanied him home. My character is unstained now, and he is cleared of guilt by association. The official story is that I was framed for the kidnapping, my elevation to Her Enlightened Highness’s valette my reward for having aided in unmasking the real culprits. I don’t know what rumours Nazagi has contrived to spread to bolster this rather thin tale, but they seem to have been effective. The servants no longer look at me askance. A couple of the bolder ones have even asked me what the truth of it is; I simply smile at them, and say that I have taken a vow of silence on the subject. Let them talk it to death amongst themselves.

No, my choice did not harm Oscar, and it did not harm me, and I honestly believe it did not harm Gwellinor either; disconcerting and lacking in social graces he may be, but Nazagi will make a fine king when the time comes. He plays the game of the court well, and he won’t allow internal politicking to take precedence over dealing with genuine threats. I might even go so far as to say Gwellinor needs him.

I wish I could be so sure, though, that my choice has not harmed Cassidy.

She is young, and she is sheltered, and her parents have placed a terrible burden on her. And I am complicit in taking away from her the first choice she expected to be able to make for herself. Whatever his virtues, however good for her he may turn out to be, she would not have chosen Nazagi. I know that. I knew it before I agreed to help him become her husband.

And in spite of everything, she likes me. I, too, have been forced on her, but I’m the closest thing she’s ever had to a friend her own age. She’s grateful for my teaching. She’s grateful for my company.

It’s very difficult indeed not to feel like a traitor, some days.

Well. Guilt that does not inspire action is useless. I can’t take back what I’ve done. In honesty, I probably wouldn’t even if I could. But I can be of use to Cassidy. She had a right to someone with my skills all along, and whatever my flaws, I’m here now. I can be her friend, and her confidant, and her teacher. Perhaps even more, I can be someone in this palace whose loyalty is to her before her parents. I can find and cultivate other people who will be that for her too.

As she puts down the book she’s been studying, I decide that now’s as good a time as any to make progress on that front. The very least I can do is encourage her to spend more time with the one person in this place who I’m sure is on her side.

“So, what did your brother say?”

She startles, looking up at me.

“Prince Callum. What did he say, when you told him he was right all along?”

She looks unhappy, and I wince. Could I really have misjudged Callum? We hadn’t spoken, since I’d been given my freedom; when we’d passed in a corridor he’d barely nodded to me. But that had been before Dolores was sent away, and I’d thought probably he just didn’t want to talk in front of her. I’d been so sure that his concern for Cassidy was genuine. He’d said he would have helped her do anything she wanted, and I believed him. He’d killed for her. I thought he of all people....

“He wasn’t unkind, was he?”

She looks positively miserable now.

“I... haven’t spoken to him.”

“What, at all?”

“My...” She frowns. “Their Majesties said it would be best if we didn’t see each other. At least until after the wedding.”

There's pain in her voice. She's strangling it, but not very well.

“Cassidy.”

She looks up. She keeps telling me to call her by her name, but I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually done it. I sit down on my haunches by her desk, so I’m looking up at her rather than down.

“Cassidy, you know that you’re going to be a Wisdom one day, don’t you?”

She nods, warily.

“And in your heart of hearts, you know that you’re going to be really good at it, right?”

This time she gives me a slightly watery smile.

“You do. And I do. Everybody knows it. You were born for it, it’s obvious, and you’re going to do a great job.” I take a breath. “So if you were the Wisdom right now, would you talk to your brother?”

“Of course I would!” she says indignantly.

“You wouldn’t be worried that he was going to hurt you? Or use what you tell him to make trouble for you?”

She glares at me.

“Why would you say that? Do you want me to see him or don’t you?”

“Cassidy – I want to know what you want.”

“I miss him.” Her voice comes out small.

“In that case, yes, I want you to see him.” I take her hand. Her bones are as delicate as a bird’s, but there’s steel in the way she grips me. “I’m not surprised you’re worried about what your parents might do, but right now the last thing they want is a scandal, or even a fuss. You’re not confined to your rooms any more, nobody’s being guarded. I bet you could just walk straight to him and no one would even think to stop you.” I grin. “Or if you’d rather, I could climb round the outer wall and drop him a note through his window. I could use the practice, I’m probably getting soft.”

She smiles back at me, a little shakily.

“You really think I could just go to him? Just like that?”

“I really do.”

She stands from her chair, graceful and proud as any Wisdom could hope to be, and raises me up beside her.

“Let’s go right now.”

~

A couple of days later, I look up from my dawn exercises and see Prince Callum watching me from the other side of the practice courts. He beckons me over.

“So, um –” his hand goes to the back of his neck, “it was you who got Cassie to talk to me.”

“She really wanted to talk to you. I just told her that she could.”

“Still. I appreciate it.” It looks like the words taste bitter. He says them to the ground. When he looks up at me, I hold his gaze.

“Prince Callum, I know you have no reason to trust me, but I hope you’ll one day you’ll believe I really do want your sister to be happy. Happy, healthy, and safe. I consider it my duty, and more than my duty.” It feels as though I am swearing him a second oath. I think I am. He must be having the same thought, for he looks down at the newly-healing scar on his palm.

“That’s what I want too. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.” One side of his mouth twists up. “And I maybe has just a little reason to trust you. We’ll see. Just to be clear, though, your silken clad Asinethian had better want it too – or I’ll find a way to tear him limb from limb, farmakeist or no farmakeist.”

I nod. There’s not much I can say in response to that, and he clearly isn’t expecting anything. Before he can finish turning to go, though, I give in to an impulse.

“My lord Prince?”

He stops.

“Would you care to spar, my lord?”

A wolfish grin spreads across his face. He seems almost surprised to feel it there.

“Why not? My sister’s valette must keep her skills honed, after all.”

He bows, and springs toward me like a deerhound, and I brace myself to meet the attack.

~

Two weeks before the wedding

Nazagi and I make our bows and leave the audience chamber, heading back towards his quarters. (Not our quarters, yet, even unofficially. That had surprised me; I was to be his mistress, after all, and mistress, not to be too crude, is a position that one can take up at any time. But I realised this was part of the respect he had promised me, not to take me to his bed before the ceremony, as if I was the one he was marrying. Or at least, as if he was marrying me too. I liked it, when I realised that.)

When we arrive he closes the door, and turns to me abruptly.

“When Duke Pherod pulled me aside, just before we left, were you watching?”

I nod.

“Did he look sincere to you?”

Nazagi is not at such a disadvantage in conversation now that he wears his glasses openly, but he still has years of inexperience to make up for. He likes a second opinion.

“I would say so, yes. Though I would have said ‘serious’ probably, or ‘stern’. Like he really wanted you to pay attention to what he was saying.”

He sighs, and sinks into one of the living room chairs.

“I thought so too.” A pause. “He didn’t strike you as a phenomenally good actor, by any chance?”

“Duke Pherod? I wouldn’t have thought so. Though I suppose anything’s possible.”

“Many things, however, are unlikely.”

He reaches behind his glasses to pinch the bridge of his nose. After a minute, it becomes clear he’s not going to be more forthcoming.

“What did he say to you?”

Nazagi’s mouth twists wryly.

“He made an extremely dire threat against my person should I ever harm Cassidy, or should so much as a rumour reach him that she was unhappy.”

“You can’t possibly be feeling threatened?” I know as the words are coming out of my mouth that that’s not it at all.

“Hardly. In any case, the point is moot, as my intentions are perfectly honourable. I even told him so. It’s only –” He rests his head on closed fists, staring moodily into the middle distance. “Every assassin we’ve caught, every rumour of the Princess’s illegitimacy we’ve tracked back to its source, they’ve all started on or near the Duke’s lands. I was sure he had to be responsible.

“But could a man who wished to harm his niece, to depose her in the cause of his own family’s power, could he threaten me like that? A clever man would, I suppose. He’d realise it would shore up his position, to play the loving, overprotective relation. But if that was his game, wouldn’t he have been a bit more public about it? We’re attending a banquet tomorrow; a perfect excuse to pretend to be in his cups and make his threats in front of their Majesties, the spy-master and the head of the guards! Instead, what does he do? He takes me aside privately, and talks quietly enough that nobody could hope to overhear.” He takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly, his eyes closed. They snap open again. “And he was so damned convincing!”

By now, I recognised this mood. If I leave him to it, he’ll chase his tail all evening, and probably most of the night. I lay my hand on his arm.

“Nazagi.”

“Hmm?”

“Set up the parxis board.”

“Whatever for?”

“Because you need to think about something other than this for half an hour or so.”

He shrugs, not quite conceding, but digs out the board and begins to put the pieces into play.

“For what it’s worth, I don’t think this is a reason to be worried.”

He raises an interrogative eyebrow at me.

“If Duke Pherod’s lying, then he’s a great actor. That’s worth knowing. But it doesn’t actually make him much more dangerous. He’s already the king’s closest relative, with lands, money, and a small army of his own. We were never going to not keep a close eye on what he does with those things, no matter what we think of the man personally.”

Nazagi turns up the corners of his mouth a little – my point.

“And if he’s not lying, then we might have an unexpected ally – and positioned right where we could most use one.” I offer him a shrug of my own. “The man might be useful, and we’re definitely going to be suspicious of him regardless.”

This time, I get a proper smile.

“Now those are words to live by, my dear.” He hands me the dice. “Shall we begin?”

~

The wedding night

I don’t expect it to be romantic.

We’d agreed, quite businesslike, quite sensible, that bloodied sheets should be provided for the benefit of the servants’ hall gossip. That it would be as well to get started on an heir as soon as possible. He flushed a little when we were talking about it and wouldn’t meet my eyes.

He’s pretty when he flushes like that.

I gave him my best rakish grin and told him it would be alright on the night, and he snorted, then brushed his fingertips over the length of my hand. Helplessly, I shivered, and he snatched his hand back again, but he was smiling at me, awkward and fond.

I don’t expect it to be romantic, and it’s not, not in a storybook way, but he kisses me as if he’s been thinking of nothing else for months, and he touches me all over like he’s studying me, like he wants to know the places that give me pleasure as well as he knows my pressure points, and he insists on keeping his glasses on so he can see me properly, and at a crucial moment they fall off and tangle themselves in my hair, and he buries his head in the crook of my neck and we laugh together as he keeps rocking into me, and I’m far, far happier than I have any right to be.

~

Three weeks after the wedding

Oscar still writes to me every month, and sometimes twice. His new valette is Juliette Durand. I remember her – in her early thirties by now, impressively tall, spare and with a touch of the military about her. (Not an affectation. She was a demon on the practice courts, especially with a longsword.) She was widowed very young and childless, and chose to settle her estate on her younger sister rather than remarry. I have to suspect she wanted this position from the start. Oscar talks about her with an awe that is very nearly terror, but at least he feels well protected. He tells me that his blade-work is improving, and that Juliette has unbent enough to teach him the rudiments of grappling, and to take him to spar occasionally on rough ground, in the game forest or the low scrub hills to the west of the palace. I hope he will never need such skills as he needed them in Gwellinor, but nonetheless I’m pleased that he’s taking the trouble to learn. Maybe Juliette will even manage to break him of his poetry habit.

I miss him. Sometimes I still surprise myself with it, how much I miss him, his boyish smile, his skill at cards, the way he always wanted to make me happy when he was happy. Even his terrible poetry, just a little. It’s not an easy thing, to lose the only best friend you ever had. I don’t regret him, though. I made the best choice I had available to me. More and more often, these days, I think that even if I’d had more options I might still have chosen this. At least, if I’d known what was good for me.

In a couple of months he and Juliette are headed for Bardowen to meet their Majesties’ second daughter, the Duchess of Vergne. A less prestigious match than a Wisdom, of course, but she has more wealth than some of the smaller kingdoms combined. Apparently she is red-headed and hearty and sings like an angel (at the smallest provocation, according to the less kind of the court gossips). I can’t quite picture her, or what Oscar might make of such a woman, but I will wish him well and do my very best to remember that it’s no longer my place to give him advice.

It’s around that time, too, that I can expect my yearly communication from my family. I’m giving serious consideration to simply not writing back.

~

Four months after the wedding

I enter Nazagi’s study without knocking and immediately feel tactless; Cassidy is with him, taking the chair while he stands to her right, their heads bent together over some dense treatise or other. Thus far, they’ve had the politest marriage that could possibly be imagined: on ceremonial occasions, he treats her with a sedate, measured chivalry; on social ones, they make intelligent conversation with their neighbours on extremely safe topics; at balls, she has sufficient natural grace on the dance floor to make him look graceful too. The number of times she’s sought him out in private, though, I think I can still count on my fingers, and he never pushes her for more.

Cassidy’s caught my eye, and waves me over.

“Madeleine! Nazagi’s been talking me through the Navarro Imperium’s bloodlines – you know their new Wisdom’s just inherited.”

I incline my head; it wasn’t really a question.

“No doubt we will want to pay our respects to our new Royal Sister in due course. I thought it would be best to make a start on my diplomatic lessons. You will bear it in mind for our syllabus over the next couple of months? I hear the Nevarri write splendid poetry.”

I can’t help but smile at the barely repressed excitement in her voice. Perhaps most of all the freedoms her marriage has granted her, Cassidy loves planning to travel the world, see other courts, meet other Wisdoms and Wisdoms-to-be. (A girl brought up in eight rooms, for years on end. Even now I can’t quite wrap my mind around it, how very confined she was.)

“Of course, your Highness. I’ll see what the library has on the subject.”

She pushes back her chair.

“I think Madeleine wants to talk to you, Nazagi, and I wanted to look in on the new herb garden this afternoon. Thank you for your help. I’m sure we can pick this up again some time soon.” She gives him the briefest of pats on the back of his hand, and lets herself out. Sometimes I think that no situation could leave Cassidy feeling tactless.

Nazagi is raising his eyebrows at me.

“I’m sorry to have interrupted. That seemed like it was going well?”

“You thought so too? That’s good. I’m glad she decided to ask me, and she’s a pleasure to teach, don’t you think?” He rubs his face, not waiting for my reply. “But she can be very – young, I suppose. I keep tripping over it.” Abstracted, he looks at the desk for a moment, then back up at me. “You wanted to see me?”

“Yes. Ah – it’s just a stupid thing, really.” Absurdly, I find I’m fighting the urge to twist my hands together; my parents broke me of that habit when I was six.

“Hmm?”

“You know Prince Callum has been teaching me about clockwork? These last few weeks I’ve been putting together a clock of my own – just a simple one – and a couple of nights ago we were putting the finishing touches to it, and what with one thing and another I didn’t leave his rooms until nearly two hours after midnight. And then this morning when we were leaving the practice courts –”

“– you overheard something that made it clear certain assumptions have been made?”

“By practically the whole palace, as near as I can tell.”

He drums his fingers against his lips.

“Quite an elegant solution. It should do very nicely, I think.”

“What should?”

He glances up at me sharply.

“You weren’t thinking of it too? I’ve been hoping we’ll be able to conceal your first pregnancy, but it would be foolish to assume we’ll be able to completely hide all of them. Sooner or later some rumour will slip out. Far better if people think they already know who your lover is. And bearing royal bastards gives you an excellent motive for hiding your condition and sending the children to be raised elsewhere.” He nods. “Yes, this could hardly have been better if you planned it. I rather thought you had.”

“When you put it like that, I suppose I should have.”

“You’re not happy,” he says, tentative.

“I – it’s uncomfortable. To be the at the centre of gossip, and also,” I take a breath, “I keep feeling like it reflects badly on you. That people think I would –” I offer him my best imitation of his own wry smile. “When really it’s if they thought I was faithful to you that we’d be in trouble. I told you it was stupid.”

“No,” he says, voice soft. “No, I don’t think it’s stupid. It’s hard to be one thing in public and something quite other in private. I knew it was a difficult thing I was asking of you. I didn’t anticipate it being difficult in exactly this way, but –” He takes my hand. “All I can tell you is this: I am glad Prince Callum is your friend. We may not be to each other’s taste, he and I, but I can’t fault his loyalty. I’m glad there is someone you like who you can be truthful with. I wasn’t sure if you’d ever have such a luxury. And no matter what the court gossips say, I know that your honour and your fidelity is with me.”

I stare at our joined hands.

“I think,” I say at last, “that may be the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

I can feel him smile.

~

Six months after the wedding

Yorik and I are spending the evening together. I really like Yorik, I’ve found; he’s big and bluff and straightforward, and always sets out to be pleased with his company. Sometimes he’s a little too hearty for me, and sometimes I get irritated that his only approach to problem solving is to charge in and tackle things head on. Then again, sometimes Nazagi needs reminding that not every situation must be dealt with with a complex, multi-levelled scheme, and to be honest, every now and then I so do I.

Our evenings tend to follow a predictable pattern. Tonight, he’s told me the latest from his friends in Asineth, I’ve filled him in on Oscar’s gossip from the court of Ehlerin, and in the process we’ve killed most of a bottle of wine between us, which means it’s about time for me to be breaking out the cards.

I’m still dealing when there’s a rap on the door and Nazagi comes in, just barely waiting for our invitation.

“Madeleine, may I borrow you? I promise to return you to your scheduled debauchery in half an hour or so.” There’s an apology in his eyes that he’s entirely failed to give voice to. I’m used to that by now. In fact, I think if he ever did apologise to me out loud I’d be seriously worried.

Yorik grins at me and gets to his feet, waving Nazagi into his now vacant chair.

“I’ll be in the kitchens,” he says. “Come fetch me when his Highness has done with you.”

He heads out of the room jauntily; he has his eye on one of the under-cooks, and must be making progress lately.

As the door shuts I turn to Nazagi.

“Well?”

“I couldn’t sleep.” He sounds almost truculent. “I just keep thinking about – Madeleine, will you tell me honestly, have I made some terrible misstep with Cassidy lately?”

Ah. Well, that explains more than it doesn’t.

“I had thought we were getting along better – she was spending much more time with me – but now she comes to see me and then barely speaks. And it’s not only when we’re alone, she’s more subdued in public, too. I’m sure she’s unhappy about something.” He steals a glance at me. “She is, isn’t she?”

“Yes, I think so,” I say, slowly. I should have seen this coming. Nazagi, for all his political acumen, has some fairly consistent blind spots. “Haven’t you noticed a theme in the things she’s been inviting you to do with her lately?” Music recitals. Dancing lessons. Long walks in the garden at sunset.

Nazagi is shaking his head.

“She hasn’t confided in me, so I can’t be absolutely certain, but I’m pretty sure all she wants is for you to be more of a husband to her.”

He blushes. He hasn’t done that in a while, and something warm and a little tender curls in the pit of my stomach at the sight of it. I had thought that perhaps this would be one of the difficult things. Maybe it won’t be, after all.

“You mean –” He takes a deep breath. “I more or less coerced her into this marriage. Or her parents and I did, between us. I couldn’t... it wouldn’t be right to give her the least impression that I was going to push her for –”

“No, no of course not. You were absolutely right to stand back, and if she’d never been interested then that would have been that. But Nazagi....” I stop, and take a minute to marshal my thoughts. “Look, she’s young, and she’s romantic, and you may not be the lover she would have chosen for herself but you’re the only lover she’s allowed to have. Depending on how things turn out, you may be the only lover it’s ever safe for her to take. So it’s not surprising that –”

He interrupts, overlapping me: “That doesn’t really seem like the best foundation....”

I interrupt him right back.

“It’s not the best foundation. But it’s what you’ve got. So. Go slow. Be gentle.” I poke him in the ribs. “Whatever you do, don’t try to seduce her by walking into her bedroom and casually starting to undress.” He opens his mouth and shuts it again, conceding the point. “Maybe read her some nice sonnets?”

“That almost sounded serious.”

“It almost was serious.” I close my eyes for a moment, suddenly tired. “I know none of this is your forte. And you don’t have to be romantic the exact same way that she’s romantic. But – be kind to her. And be open to her. And for goodness’ sake, try to pay enough attention that you’ll notice if it looks like she’s trying to kiss you.”

He leans across the table and kisses me, and I smile against his mouth.

“Thank you, Madeleine. I’ll – well, I’ll do my best.”

“See that you do.” It doesn’t come out stern, but nevertheless I surprise myself with just how much I mean it.

~

I catch Cassidy slipping out of Nazagi’s rooms in the middle of the day about three weeks after our late night conversation. She’s smiling; not a very broad smile, but nonetheless her whole face seems to glow with it. Which is why I’m only slightly disconcerted when I see the angry-looking burn on her left hand.

“Your Highness! You’d best let me tend to that.”

She looks up, a little startled.

“Oh, this? Nazagi gave me some ointment for it.”

“All to the good. You should let me bandage it for you, though.”

We step into her adjoining rooms, and I dig out the medical case. Cassidy’s humming something to herself, sitting on the edge of her bed and touching the floor with one pointed toe. She looks very far away, and I can’t resist fishing a little.

“You’ve had a good afternoon?”

“Oh, yes!” Her eyes are full and dreamy. “Nazagi and I – well, he’s been teaching me.”

I can’t suppress a grin.

“And you’re having fun?”

“Well, I wouldn’t call it fun, exactly. It’s a lot to take in, and it’s hard work.”

Clearly I’ve missed a turning in this conversation somewhere. At least I hope so. Something must be showing on my face, because she laughs at my confusion.

“I didn’t say, did I? It’s my monthly potions. I knew the ones he was making for me were better than the ones I used to take, but I never thought to ask him to teach someone else how to make them. And then he offered to teach me, and I’m so glad, hard work and burns and all.” She meets my eyes. “It’s so wonderful – don’t you think? – to be able to do things for yourself.”

“I do think so.” Nazagi clearly still hasn’t found the romance in his soul. But I have to give him points for finding other things that work just as well. “So how did you pick up the war wound?”

She suddenly becomes very interested in finger-combing her hair.

“I, ah – I kissed him. Just when he’d finished decanting the potion. He only splashed me a little. Next time I’ll wait for him to put the bottle down first. That is, I mean, if you –” She looks at me, fingers twisted in her curls. “Is it alright? That I kissed him?”

“It’s definitely alright,” I tell her. And it really is.

~

Fourteen months after the wedding

I am very bored.

I am also very pregnant, which is not helping matters. I thought it was rough in the first few months, when between morning sickness and worry about how soon I’d start to show I had to abandon my morning exercises with Callum almost right away. At least I could still stretch in my rooms, then, and do some horse riding. Nearly eight months gone, and I can barely walk the length of the small ornamental garden at the back of the estate.

It’s pretty, the place where I’m living out my luxurious exile. One of Nazagi’s own holdings, just over the border between Asineth and Ocendawyr. Officially, I’m with my relations for a few months while Nazagi and Cassidy make a state visit to Nazagi’s parents. We thought it was probably safer for the first baby to turn up while we were outside Gwellinor altogether. So Cassidy is parading around the Asinethian court in a series of carefully designed sets of padding, and I am here. And I am very bored.

It’s not so bad, really. There are more books than I could hope to read even if I stayed for a decade, and the handful of servants assure me that my grasp of Asinethian dialect is coming on by leaps and bounds. (It’ll be years, though, before I speak Nazagi’s language as well as he speaks mine.) One of them breeds racing dogs, which he’s happy to tell me about at as much length as I can stand.

Some days I am convinced that I’m going to be pregnant forever, a girl in a fairy tale who somehow stepped outside of time, confined in this beautiful house waiting to be set free by an event that will never happen. Some days I just want to cry. Some days I do.

I’m roused from my morbid thoughts by a commotion in the entrance hall. I can’t run, but I get there as fast as I can.

“Cassidy!”

She whips round from supervising the servants with their luggage, and throws her arms open to me. I’m embarrassed to find I’m crying on her shoulder as she holds me.

“Madeleine, we just couldn’t stand staying away any longer. Nazagi’s been a positive bear this last month without you around.” She lets me go. “Where is our husband?”

He’s standing behind us, holding a couple of smaller bags. He places them down, steps towards us, and presses a slow, soft kiss to the corner of my mouth.

“Madeleine. It’s very good to see you.” He straightens up. “We decided it wasn’t too much more of a risk for Cassidy to have the baby while we were travelling. If it’s not too big we can claim it was a couple of weeks premature and caught us by surprise. And in any case I wanted to bring you Aimi, my sister’s accoucheuse. She’s very discreet, very reliable. I didn’t like the idea of you having only servants to assist you.”

“I’m sure I’ll be very grateful for her.” I slip my arm through his. “Have you thought about where Cassidy’s birth will happen? I don’t think it should be here. We are remote, but I couldn’t stay indoors all day, and it’s not impossible that travelers or one of your neighbours saw me at some point. I know you said your older brother has an estate nearby. Might that do? Or would that innkeeper on the Western Road you’re friends with be a better bet?”

“Both of you!” There’s a hint of a giggle in Cassidy’s voice, but there’s more than a hint of exasperation too. “I promise you, you’ll have lots of time to plot together. But not now. Now, you’re going to come and sit down and drink tea with me, as if we were civilized people. Aren’t you?”

The voice of a Wisdom is disregarded at one’s peril, so that’s exactly what we do.