I was in the garden, gathering plants for that morning's batch of healing salves and wishing for a drink, when I looked up to see Irfan approaching. His dark robes and hood were an incongruous shadow against the sunlit green grass. Smiling to myself, I bent back to my work.
"For the King;s own appointed spy, you make an awful lot of noise when you walk," I commented as he came to a stop beside me. "I could hear you breathing a mile off."
His dark eyes regarded me for a long moment, then his face broke out into a grin. "It's your own fault for living at the top of this damnable hill." Still grinning, he put his hands on his knees and drew in a few deep breaths. I detected a rattle deep within his broad chest. For all his muscular strength, his lungs were weak. They always had been.
I looked down at the bundle of herbs in my arms. "I was just about to make breakfast. Would you care to join me?"
"It would be an honour."
After the heat of the day, it felt cold inside. A couple of patients were waiting for me, one of them perusing my bookshelves, but it didn't look like anything my capable assistant couldn't handle on his own. I lead Irfan through the surgery to the back stairs that lead up to the rooms I keep above the surgery. Once up there I sorted through my bundle, picking out the wispy grass-seed stems that are no good in salves and unguents, but do make an excellent porridge. I gave them to Irfan so that he could get started on making the breakfast, and I crossed the room to the wine cask and poured myself a drink, trying to conceal my desperation.
"Anything to drink, Irfan?" I asked, after draining half my goblet. By the Watcher, I felt so much better.
Irfan looked at me strangely, but merely shook his head. "No, thank you."
Soon we were sat at my small wooden table, steaming bowls of porridge before us. Irfan pushed his hood down and ran a hand over his shaved scalp. He looked tired, I noted. I also spotted a fresh bruise high on his cheekbone, ugly against his smooth, clean-shaven skin.
"Got caught breaking one of the King's 'trading associates' out of the stocks again?"
He blinked, then touched his fingertips to the mark. "Yes, although I only spent a couple of hours in the stocks for it myself. More than enough time to get pelted with a couple of rotten eggs, it seems." He made a face.
"Either the aim of the townsfolk is deteriorating, or you've gotten better at avoiding projectiles aimed at your eyes."
Irfan shrugged good-naturedly at my jibe.
"Do you remember the first time we met?" I asked with a laugh. "You couldn't have been more than a couple of days new to the job when you came to me with an inflamed eye. It took me a while to get the truth out of you, but when I'd removed the last of the pips from beneath your eyelid, you opened up and told me you'd gotten caught breaking someone out of the stocks, been put in them as punishment where you'd taken a rotten tomato to the eye."
"I remember. You should have gone into the spying profession yourself, the way you managed to extract the truth so skilfully from me. I suppose it was to your advantage that you had a sharp implement close to my eye."
I matched his grin.
"And you've been my good and true friend ever since," he continued, turning serious. "Which is why, Merylana, I have come to you now." He gave me a rueful smile. "It seems I need your help once again. I've asked Dame Constance to marry me."
"But Irfan, that's wonderful news! I've always thought the two of you make such a handsome couple." I started to reach across the table to embrace him, but thought better of it and picked up my goblet instead. It wasn't jealousy that stopped me, I t old myself, not some ember of bitter disappointment. My throat was dry, I needed to wet it. Besides, given Irfan's new situation it would have been improper for me, a young unmarried woman, to hug him. Especially here in my private rooms. I knew what high ideas of chivalry Irfan had – more akin to those of a knight than a professional spy, but unfortunately his expertise did not lie in a knight's area.
"But why do you need my help?"
"Last night, I received a visitor in my chambers..."
I leapt up, laying a reassuring hand on my friend's shoulder. "Say no more about it. I have just the thing downstairs. Tell Dame Constance to drink it as soon as possible, otherwise..."
Irfan blushed and squirmed in his chair. "No, no, it's nothing like that. I haven't compromised my dear Constance's honour. Sit down Merylana.
"No, my visitor was Basilea the Sly. We were friends long ago, when I lived across the sea. More than friends, in fact, were childhood sweethearts. She says she has come here to make a new life for herself. On learning I was here also, she wanted to talk of old times, but when I saw her I realised that I still have feelings for her. I still love her. You're a wise woman, Merylana, what should I do?
"You have to make a decision."
"Help me to choose between them. Please?"