Dear Readers,

So sorry for the long delay in getting this chapter up. Work, this school year, has left me little time for writing, and what little time I did have for writing was filled instead with procrastination and self-doubt.

I'm not entirely satisfied with this chapter. Too much talk and not enough action, but it is what it is, and does set up the Langley "household."

Chapter Seven

"This blasted fog! 'Tis the Devil's on doing, I swear. I can't see two yards in front of my face."

"Me, neither," Sir August quipped, "... oh, but wait..."

"Very funny," Conrad replied. "Jest all you like, but when your horse tumbles headlong into the river below, don't expect me to come wading in that freezing slush to save your sorry blind arse."

"And I thought we were friends."

Conrad laughed. That his brother-in-arms was in a foul temper was hardly surprising. Sir August fell into sullen silence whenever they traveled. Conrad could hardly fault him for that. He could barely imagine how disorienting it must be, with neither his sight to guide him, nor the feel of solid ground beneath his feet. Perhaps what rankled most, he imagined, was the humiliation of being led around like a child when once he had been one of the finest knights in all of Christendom.

"How much longer?"

"Another three hours. If the fog lifts, mayhap only two. 'Tis a shame we are pressed for time. There's a fine tavern just a little ways from here, with the best ale from London to Langley. And the tavern keeper's daughters, each one lovelier than ..."

Augusts' scowl deepened.

Conrad pulled his mount closer, and leaned in whispering. "What is amiss?"

"It is nothing. Where is my squire?"

"Avoiding your temper, most likely." Conrad turned in the saddle and grinned. "He has managed to insert himself between the lovely Damoiselle Anne and Lord Arthur's newest squire. The lad shows promise."

And for the first time in hours, Sir August smiled.

"You orchestrated this move?" Conrad asked.

"No. I only asked him to make sure Benjamin did not beguile the Countess' newest protegée." He promised himself to reward Sotudeh's initiative with a free afternoon once they'd settled into their lodgings at Langley.

"And so, there I was, Annie, a towering cliff barring my way on the one side, and a Fleming twice my size on the other. At my back, only the precipice and the roaring surf."

"The surf was at your back, Benjamin? Only a moment ago, you said you had the Flemish mercenary holding you over the edge."

Benjamin shot Sotudeh a poisonous glare. "You misheard, Saracen." He nudged his horse between Sotudeh's mottled grey and Annie's gleaming sorrel gelding. He switched to English, certain that Sir August's squire would not know the common tongue. "As I was saying, Annie. I turned. Aye, I turned and launched myself at the Fleming, landing on the very edge of the cliff. The surf was roiling far beneath me, and I felt myself teetering."

"And then what happened, Ben?" Annie asked.

"I reached down into my boot, where my other knife was hidden."

"Even as you were teetering?" Sotudeh asked in perfect English. "That must have taken some skill not to topple over the edge."

"Quiet, whelp. Should you not be seeing to your blind master?"

The youth cast a casual glance towards the front of the group. "He and Sir Conrad are in deep conversation. He will call if he needs me. Go on, I pray you. Your tale is most entertaining."

Benjamin swallowed a dozen solid English oaths. His Grace expected all of his squires and men-at-arms to speak courteously to even the lowest cur. Curs such as this Saracen mongrel. He shot the youth a venomous look, then turning a smile on Annie, continued his narrative. "As I was saying, I was backed to the very edge of the precipice, when I vaulted over the knave, sending the one o'er the edge, and the other scrambling back to the woods whence he came."

"There were two? Only a moment ago you said - "

"I said 'two', you misbegotten heathen! There were two. One was dead and the other fled. And then, Annie, with your father's message still safe in my keeping, I flew to London, as fast as my horse could carry me."

Annie fought to keep a solemn expression. "On my father's behalf, Benjamin, I thank you." She reached out a hand to her companion, while winking at the solemn youth on her right.

August rolled his eyes. "God's nails! Conrad!"

"I'm right here. No need to shout."

"Have you ever heard such a fabrication? Truly, he has missed his calling. He has the makings of a fine jongleur." He frowned at an unexpected noise. "Did he just kiss her?"

"Her hand, yes."

No maid, no matter how naive could possibly believe such a fanciful tale."Tell me, how does she look at him?"

"Well, the lad has a vivid imagination, and a talent for storytelling..."

"He's on his way to another conquest?"

"I think not. Though it's hard to say with some girls. For certes, she looks upon him sweetly. They grew up together, you said. Perhaps they are only renewing an old friendship. What does it matter to you?"

"It doesn't."

"Can it be that you are smitten with the maid? Has the mighty Sir August, breaker of hearts, despoiler of virgins, ravager of reputations at long last fallen to a lady's charms?"

"Not in the least. The Countess asked me to oversee her training, to keep an eye on her, as it were. And that is all I intend to do with her."

Conrad made a thoughtful noise. "If that indeed is all you see in her, very well. If not, then have a care around Mercer. I do not trust the lad. If what I've heard is true, he has a jealous streak and a vicious temper to match."

"I can take care of myself."

"Perhaps so, but even the most clear-eyed among us can do little against a knife in the dark, or an arrow at a distance."

August tilted his face upwards. "And on that cheery note, I do believe I begin to feel a touch of sun on my cheeks. Is the fog lifting?"

"Yes, and none too soon. We'll make better time now, and cross Langley's gates in time to enjoy a warm supper and a pot of Berkshire's best ale by the fire." He grabbed the guiding rein tightly and drew August's mount near. "Have a care, my friend. Do not dismiss my concerns out of hand."

The day gave way to dusk, and the forest to tidy fields. In the distance, a bell tolled calling the friars of Langley Abbey to evening prayers. August turned his ears to a quiet splashing and gurgling that drew steadily closer until he was rewarded with the hollow thud of hooves on wood. He knew exactly where he was. In all the years that he had ridden this road, both blind and sighted, certain landmarks still stood out clearly.

A trotting horse with a tell-tale jingle in its tack slowed at his side. "M'lord?"

August scowled in the lad's direction. "You've not yet seen to that loose buckle, Sotudeh."

"It is not vital. Besides, m'Lord, how else would you know me?"

"By your cheekiness, no doubt!"

Conrad handed the guiding rein to the squire. "He's all yours," he muttered. "May the saints preserve you."

Sotudeh smiled but said nothing as he took the rein. He knew his lord's moods too well. Sir Conrad did not. His chatter, intended as a distraction, had served its purpose admirably, distracting Sir August, who, Sotudeh knew, used the traveling hours to map out the aural clues and landmarks along the way. He could only imagine how Sir Conrad's misinterpretation of his master's intense concentration had, with good intention, completely muddled the soundscape and soured Sir August's mood. Ironically for one of Langley's best knights, Sir Conrad was unusually inept when it came to reading people.

"You should soon be able to see Langley's keep in the distance," August said in Arabic. "If there is still light enough to see."

"Na'am, Sayid," Sotudeh replied, "there is, and I can just make out its walls and guard towers. How did you know?"

Sir August smiled. He hardly needed Sotudeh's commentary, or Conrad's chatter. "I paid attention. The Vespers bell tolled as we came out of the woods. We crossed the bridge a few moments ago. The temperature has grown colder. And if that's not enough, the stink of burning pitch, and the distinctive spit and crackle tells me our escort has lit the torches."

"I knew all of this, Sayid, but only relied on my eyes."

"I do not have that luxury. But if any good has come from this, it is that I have learned to attend to all of my remaining senses. You should do the same."

"I should learn to be blind?"

"Nay, lad. I would not wish such a trial upon you. But knowing how to function in the dark is a useful skill for people such as us. Remind me to take you down into the cellars to work on your swordplay."

They rounded a corner and the road began to angle upward. Sir August's mount, a fine Arabian courser, leaned forward into the ascent. They should be approaching Langley's first gate any instant.

There was a sudden snap. Instinctively, he looked up towards the sound. "The heralds have unfurled the banners," he said, sitting a little straighter in the saddle.

A clarion announce their arrival. The windlass groaned as the heavy iron gate was raised to admit the Countess and her retinue. A new challenge was called as they stopped before the inner wall. The air felt closer now as they passed through the second arch and moved through the town's winding streets, ever upwards towards the castle's own defenses. At the third and final gate, a final challenge was called.

Langley was a secure fortress, one of the most closely guarded in all of the realm. Even the Countess was required to show her face to the castellan before gaining admittance to her own keep.

Close behind, Mercer complained. "How many more times must her Grace assure the guards that she is who she claims to be?"

August turned in the saddle. "Langley holds treasure more valuable that silver and gold. The Earl and Countess themselves require that challenges be issued to all who pass these gates, without exception. Even the King must doff his hood when he comes to Langley. If it troubles you, Mercer, or if you feel it beneath your station, I have no doubt her Grace will give you leave to return to stitching tunics, and measuring hosen."

As soon as they crossed the moat, Sir August's senses were overwhelmed with the familiar sounds, scents and textures of the fortress that he considered his home. The quiet touch of hooves on beaten earth was replaced by the clatter of iron against cobbles. The wide-open air of the courtyard soon gave way to the close familiarity of the stables.

He released a slow breath as the welcome scent of beeswax, hay, and horses drew him in like a familiar embrace. He tugged lightly at the reins. "Home," he sighed, and dismounted.

"Shall I tend to Jalal, Sayid?" Another scent teased his nostrils. He smiled as he heard the tell-tale crunch.

"See to your stomach, lad. I can care for my own horse."

"You forget, he is my horse," the young Saracen said through a mouthful of apple.

Sir August grinned. "You forget, he belongs to Salah al-Dīn."

"Salah al-Dīn had plenty of horses to spare, Sayid, and our need was greater." Sotudeh took a quick look around assuring himself that everything was in its usual place. He set his master's hand on the latch of the stall.

"So you took his fastest courser?"

"You voiced no objections at the time, as I recall."

And for the first time all day, Sir August laughed. "Begone, whelp! Go find yourself a hot meal and a warm wench. It shouldn't be difficult. I've heard the maids talking of your dark eyes and gentle manners.

Sotudeh coughed but could not form words for a suitable retort.

Sir August grinned. "Truly, I can hear you blushing."

"I do not blush," Sotudeh replied, finding his words again.

"Go! Do not leave the wenches waiting."

"I'm going. I'm going. I'm leaving, Sayid.

"And take the torch with you."

Sotudeh paused by the stable door, lifted the torch from its bracket, and turned back towards the darkness.

"Are you displeased that I rode with Benjamin?"

"Displeased? Indeed not! I'm grateful for it. Someone had to shield Damoiselle Anne from Mercer's honeyed words. I'm glad it was you. Now leave me. JalaI needs tending, and I need a few moments of quiet to order my thoughts ere I answer her Grace's summons."

August listened as the soft patter of his squire's steps dissolved into the evening sounds. He lifted off the heavy saddle, and, counting his steps, set it on a bench on the far wall. He lifted off Jalal's blanket, and brought him a bucket of oats. "Come here, lad. Come have your dinner." He ran his hand up the horse's cheek, and down his neck. In spite of the cold, Jalal's coat was warm and damp with sweat. August twisted a bunch of hay into a makeshift brush, and began the slow, methodical task of grooming the steed that had brought him and Sotudeh out of darkness and captivity, through deadly danger and hardship from Outremer to England, and would do so again without complaint.

He was cleaning Jalal's hoofs, when he paused at a familiar sound. As the rustle of silk drew closer, he set down the spoon, and gave a deep bow. "Your Grace."

"I only enjoy that trick when you play it on others," the Countess replied.

He gave a half smirk. "I could have come to you."

"I know. Perhaps I came to see to my horse," she replied, walking the length of the stable, softly pushing in each stall door. Satisfied that they were alone, she turned around. "Perhaps I came to see that he was well cared for."

"You and his Grace both stable your horses closer to the keep. You always have."

She seated herself on a rough bench and arranged her skirts about her. "Come. Sit. We've not had the chance to speak since all this started."

August draped a woolen blanket over Jalal's back, and made sure there was sufficient water in the trough. He ran his hands over the shelf, assuring himself that everything was its place, and smiled as he found an apple Sotudeh had left there. He gave Jalal the apple and one last caress, then carefully latched the stall and made his way across the stable until the end of his staff caught in a tangle of fabric.

"Two steps to your left."

He sat next to her. "You seem to be handling this remarkably well, your Grace."

"We're alone. You have my leave to drop the formalities, August. And, yes, I am handling it well. I am trying to."

"Truly, Joan?"

"Not you, too, August? Would you have break down in a fit of desperate wailing?"

"None would fault you for it... though they might be surprised," August grinned.

"Everyone has been treating me as if I were made of glass."

"They don't know you as I do. I know your mettle. I can scarce imagine the Countess of Langley, epitome of grace under pressure, giving way to hysterics."

"Perhaps I should endeavor to swoon for the benefit of my courtiers."

August leaned back against the stable wall, wrapped his cloak about his body, and stretched out his long legs. "Where do you think they are?"

Joan shrugged. "In some remote Austrian schloss. Or sold to Saladin and held for ransom. I have no fear for their lives. Even Saladin knows they are worth more alive than dead."

"A king's ransom?"

"A king's ransom, and a king's bastard's ransom."

"That's assuming Arthur was taken. Baldwin said Arthur was not with them."

Joan adjusted her cloak. "I have no worries for Arthur. He is resourceful and will find his way home."

"And Richard?"

"You know as much as I do. He never should have traveled through Austria. I cannot fathom what he was thinking to go that way."

"There was no safe route home. All the ports were being watched. I imagine he thought he could elude his pursuers more easily by taking the least likely route."

"Doubtless he would have made it home, had he not blundered into the wrong village."

"And Walker?"

"I have no doubt that he and Arthur concocted some scheme together. Both are too canny to be taken without a chase."

"Even the fastest steed cannot outrun an arrow."

"And on that cheerful note..."

"You do not keep me in your pay to be cheerful."

"True, but I do keep you to be resourceful. And you have resources aplenty on the Continent. Can you get word to your network? See what you can learn?"

August smiled. "I've been working on something. Have you a moment to spare?"

"This is where you'll sleep and keep yer things."

Annie dropped her saddlebags on chest at the foot of the narrow bed and looked around. Three other beds, each identical to hers, shared the space and were set about the tpwer room like the hour marks around the horologia she had seen in Kashgar years ago.

Her companion, a small, coarse, freckled creature, set the torch in an empty bracket. Its flame flickered in the draft, sending shadows dancing about the tower room.

"Are there other women sharing the room?"

"Aye. That's what the beds are for, aren't they? They're already in the hall. Put yer things in the trunk. If you need to wash yourself, the kitchen lad will be up shortly with warm water and soap. "

The woman hesitated by the door. "My name's Mag. I take care of 'er Grace's lasses, yerself included."

"Thank-you, Mistress Mag. I'm Annie. I'm very pleased to meet you."

"It's not mistress. I'm Mag, just Mag."

"Well, then, Mag Just Mag," Annie quipped, "I am honored to make your acquaintance."

If Mag appreciated the jest, she gave no sign. Instead she eyed Annie thoughtfully. "It's not often that 'er Grace takes an English lass into 'er service," she said at length. "The others are all French."

"Are there many others?"

"Well, there are these three and yourself. And another three in the room below. One's already left, and some are ready to go, and will be leaving ere springtime."

"Leaving? To go where?

"Not sure."

"Where do you think they go?"

Mag looked 'round, then whispered. "I'm not 'ere to make guesses, but I reckon they probably in the service of some other 'ouse'old. 'Er Grace is strict and demanding. The they might find better positions. All I know is once they leave they 'ardly never come back."

"I'll consider myself warned."

"I'll be back with the water boy, and to light the brazier and to show you to the 'all. Make yourself ready. Supper is a quick affair 'round 'ere." She exited without another word, leaving Annie alone to inspect her new lodgings.

Unlike the rooms at the Tower, or even the novices cells at Vezelay, this room revealed nothing as to the identities or occupations of the other women in the Countess' keeping.

She darted to the door and pressed her ear to the heavy wood. Moving back into the room, she carefully lifted the lid of one of the chests. She pulled out a simple gown of plain brown homespun and held it to her shoulders. Its owner was much shorter than she was. Further inspection revealed a pair of riding braies, stockings that had been mended several times with great care, a pair of Moroccan leather shoes, a linen veil, a sandalwood rosary, and a pair of thick woolen mitts. No books, no letters, no games. The other two chests revealed no more than the first.

Two pairs of footsteps echoed up the tower stairs. Annie quickly shut the chests and returned to her own bed. She pulled a warm green woolen gown from her bag, slipped it over her head, and stuffed the rest into her chest.

"Ready?" Mag asked, gesturing to a young boy to set his bucket by the hearth.

"Almost." She plunged her hands in the warm water, scrubbed her face with a flannel, and wiped it on her sleeve. "Lead on. I'm famished."

"Aye," the smaller woman replied, but made no move to the door. She frowned. "Are you going like that?"

"Why? Am I not dressed appropriately?"

"Oh, it's as you will. Only most lasses 'ere don't wear riding braes under their gowns for dinner."

Annie masked her surprise. With Mag, as with everything else where Langley was concerned, there was more here than met the eye.

The Countess stared the rows of birds sleeping with their heads tucked beneath their wings. "Pigeons, August? You would entrust our King's rescue to a flock of birds?"

"The swiftest birds in all of England."

She shook her head. "How can you know that this will work? What if they get lost, or fly into the hands of our enemies. They're only birds, August."

"They're birds that have been trained to fly to one place and back without deviating from their course. Saladin uses this very method to communicate battle plans to his generals. Sotudeh could tell you more. He lived for a time in the Sultan's dovecote. It is he who first planted the idea in my brain."

"How do they know where to go?"

"As with all animals, they will go to a sure meal."

"What keeps them from flying to any dish of grain?"

"Training. My friend Joost the Fleming trained this lot to recognize his own dwelling, and brought them over when last he was in England. Sotudeh trained them to fly straight back to their roost in the Low Countries."

"And they did it?"

"In two days. Then flew back here in four, but only because of contrary winds. They've made the crossing three times and never once strayed. Each time faster than the time before. We've only lost one bird. The only danger is that they will fall prey to hawks or other birds of prey. But we reduce the risk by sending them off in flights of three or four."

"But that's impossible!" Joan protested. "Even my fastest rider, changing horses at each post cannot reach the Low Countries in less than a week."

"These birds can. I'll show you tomorrow."

The hall at Langley was as different from the Tower's festive gathering place as buttermilk was to wine. While the space itself was grand, and could surely have lent itself to sumptuous revels, on this cold January evening it was a purely utilitarian eating place, with neither fine linens nor expensive beeswax candles to lend an air of luxury to the place. No musicians graced the gallery. No pages scurried back and forth carrying platters of food. A long table, set on a low dais, presided over the hall, but it stood empty and bare. Elsewhere in the hall, people came and went, serving themselves from sideboards and from a large steaming cauldron hanging over a central hearth.

The food was plentiful and hearty. Annie's stomach gave a low growl. The small loaf and cheese she had consumed in the saddle were distant memories.

"You can sit anywhere," Mag said, handing Annie a wooden board. 'er Grace doesn't stand on ceremony, 'less there be royals about."

"Are there often royals about?"

"Queen Eleanor was 'ere for Martinmass. King Richard used to come fairly frequently, for 'is Grace is half-brother to 'is Majesty, but on the wrong side of the blanket."

Annie placed a thick trencher on her board, and followed Mag to the cauldron. The stew was thick and fragrant with garlic and rosemary. She ladled it onto the trencher. Mag grabbed a large pot of ale, and a pair of tankards and led them to one of the trestles.

"Does the King come often, then?" Annie asked with her mouth full.

"Not since he left to fight the Saracens. Jeffrey's come once or twice. John never, for he doesn't feel that his Grace, being a bastard, deserved the old king's favor."

The hubbub of conversations ceased all of a sudden, and there was a slight commotion at the front of the hall. The Countess of Langley entered the hall with Sir August holding onto her arm. A few people looked up from their meals, but most carried on with only a brief nod to the Countess. Instinctively, Annie got to her feet.

Mag reached up and pulled her back down. "Like I said, 'er Grace doesn't hold with much ceremony."

The Countess stepped down from the dais, and led Sir August to a crowded table. The men shoved each other to make room for the new arrivals. One of the men greeted the blind knight with fist to the arm and a ribald comment, and both Sir August and the Countess responded with laughter.

"If you're here," Mag continued, "it's because her Grace feels you have skills she can use. Mayhap it's her Scottish upbringing, mayhap it's simply the way she is. She asks for your service and loyalty, that's all. In exchange she offers you her resources and her protection."

"That's all?"

"By the saints, girl, what else would you have from her? She values your skills and will reward you handsomely for them. It's a better bargain than any you'd find elsewhere."

"You say that as if I'm the one doing her a favor. An exchange of services."

"That's one way to look at it."

Annie looked at Mag quizzically, but said nothing and went back to her meal.

The hall was cleared of food. The Countess had eaten then disappeared to her private quarters. Here and there, small groups were engaged in conversation. In a far corner, Benjamin and Sir Conrad played dice, while at another table Sir August was engaged in a very handsy demonstration of chess with one of the serving women. Sotudeh, watched quietly from an alcove, never far from his master's reach.

Mag sat nearby, surveying the hall, sipping from her tankard.

"So who are you really," Annie asked.

Mag arched her brows.

"At first, by your speech and your manners, I took you to be a serving woman here. But I deem it is not so. For one thing, your hands are soft. But also, your bearing is not as humble as when we first met. And your speech, which had English intonations, when first we met, now has more fluent French intonations. You are not what you pretend to be, Mag Just Mag."

Mag put her tankard down. "Well, then, Damoiselle Walker, who, or rather what, do you think I am?"

"I'll make no guess as to your identity. That's up to you to reveal or not. But as for what you are, I would hazard that you are as I am: one of her Grace's protegées. One of her spies, or a spy in training. Perhaps she set you the task of gaining my confidence, of judging my fitness to the job. Perhaps she thought that if I thought myself your better, I would let down my guard around you."

"Perhaps you're right, Damoiselle Walker," the Countess of Langley said stepping out from behind a curtain. "Anne, Lady Margaret, a word with you both in my solar."

Sir August planted a kiss on his companion's throat, and lifted her off of his lap. "I'll show the more intricate moves another time, my dear. Sotudeh? Where are you, lad? I know you're nearby."

"Right here, Sir August."

"Nature calls."

As soon as they were out of the hall, he whispered, "Take me to her Grace's solar"


"Her Grace is with the Damoiselle Anne and Lady Margaret. Therefore I need to be there, too."

"But if her Grace had wanted you there, she would have asked you to join her."

"If I am to oversee Damoiselle Anne's training, I must be privy to their conversations. I can find my own way, if you won't lead me."

Sotudeh sighed, and let Sir August take his arm.

"Wait for me here," Sir August said a short time later when they had reached the Countess's private apartments.

"Don't I always?"

"You do, and don't think I'm not grateful. If I ever I have it in my power to thank you properly, I will."

"You gave me my freedom, Sayid. I need nothing else."

Sir August straightened, ran his hand over the surface of the door until he found the iron ring. He pulled it and marched in without waiting for an invitation.

"Sir August!" Joan jumped to her feet. "Truly your father was remiss in your education. For one thing, he forgot to teach you to knock before entering a lady's private chambers."

"In my father's defense, he had five rowdy sons to raise and enough of a time keeping my brothers out of the stocks that he may have skipped over one or two insignificant aspects of my training."

"Perhaps the Lady Margaret and Damoiselle Anne were attending me as I prepared for my bath."

"Were they?" He smiled and waggled his brows. "Are you naked, your Grace? Not that it matters, of course. But still..."

The Countess rolled her eyes. "I'm afraid I must disappoint you Sir August. I am fully clothed, as are the ladies."

August shrugged. "Will you at least offer me a seat?"

"And reward your rudeness? You can stand. I was discussing Damoiselle Anne's training. Lady Margaret will undertake it beginning on the morrow."

"Why the Lady Margaret? No offense to the lady, of course," he said with a conciliatory nod."For certes, a woman can teach another woman how to use her womanly wiles. But I would teach Anne the arts of hand-to-hand combat and knife work."

"It would be unseemly to have you grappling with a woman."

"I doubt, your Grace, that our enemies will give much thought to what behavior is seemly or not. Besides, I have other skills that only I can teach Damoiselle Walker."

The Countess considered this unexpected proposal. "What are your thoughts on this, Anne?"

"I would learn all that I can from the best, your Grace."

"You heard her, Joan."

The Countess considered this unexpected proposal. "Very well. Margaret, you will teach her all you can, as quickly as you can. August you will undertake Anne's training in your areas of expertise. Anne, Margaret, hie yourselves off to your beds. You both have an exhausting fortnight before you. August, I would have you stay a moment longer."

August sighed and steeled himself for the coming onslaught. He turned away from the sound of the closing door. "Joan, you know I had to come. We can't send her off unprepared."

"It was a private audience. Did you really think I would leave you out of her training?"

"It wouldn't be the first time."

"That's not fair. You were only just back from the war, barely recovered from your injuries, still reeling from your loss."

"That's behind me. I've accepted, moved on. You know that."

"Eleanor has clear plans for the girl. Can you accept that?"

"I live to serve."

The Countess gave a cynical snort. "Be at the tiltyard, an hour before Prime. Bring Sotudeh with you. It will still be dark."

"No darker than usual, your Grace." He turned towards the door, and counting his paces, left the Countess to her own thoughts. Whatever else happened, the morrow promised to be memorable. Of that he had no doubt.

To be continued.

Thanks for reading.