King Ruairi was a tall man, broad in the chest, with penetrating dark eyes inherited from his mother that he’d passed on to his daughter. His beard was red, his hair was black, both long and a touch disorderly, tending to stick out in thick curled tufts when unattended for more than a few hours.
In recent years, he’d begun to thicken around the middle and notice star-white hairs in his beard. This did not bother him as much as the way his wife, Saorla, had begun to thin all over and how her once luminescent skin would occasionally take on lavender shades of gray. This day, however, her lovely frame was perched alertly on the edge of the settee nearby as she embroidered. Her oval face composed in a serene meditation upon her work.
The footman opened the door and Caoinlin, her face the same shape as her mother’s though sharpened by the king’s straight brow and nose, and made up in her own peculiar crumple of rebellion, charged by the poor man, nearly bowling him over.
Saorla set her embroidery in her lap and a smiled. Ruairi leaned back in his chair and let the letters from King Aodhan remain unanswered for another few minutes.
Caoinlin embraced her mother and then, came to her father’s side.
“You wished to see me, my lord father?”
He beckoned her closer. “Let me see your hands.”
Caoinlin’s wide mouth clamped in discontent, but she presented her hands to him for inspection. The nails and cuticles were dirty and cracked. He turned them over and found the skin dry, peeling and etched with soil.
“You have the hands of a farmer’s daughter,” he said.
She bowed her head, a ribbon of black hair fell over her face. Saorla met his eye and they both suppressed a grin.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” he said.
“I’m bigger and stronger than any farmer’s daughter,” she said.
“And most of their sons I’d wager,” he said.
Caoinlin peeked up at him and he smiled. She returned the smile and put her arms around his neck.
“I will wash them,” she said into his beard.
“I do hope so.” He tucked her hair behind her ear. “You must take care to try to act the part of princess. Not all of our mothers are as forgiving as yours.”
“But if I am a princess, doesn’t that mean that how I act is how a princess should act? Shouldn’t a princess get to decide how a princess should act?”
He chuckled. “Many princesses have come before you. I shouldn’t think you’d cast aside every precedent they’ve established.”
“What have they established but getting kidnapped by marauders and wearing silly costumes?”
“Well, for one, they’ve made many a king very happy and given birth to some very odd little girls.”
Caoinlin cast a guilty glance at her mother.
“There is that,” she said, apologetically.
“This is one former princess who is content to have her daughter determine her own best manner of being a princess,” Saorla said.
Caoinlin lit up, grinning.
“Now, now.” Ruairi took his daughter’s rough, dirty hands and sandwiched it between his own. “You’re nearly eleven and there are certain duties to which you must attend.”
Her grin vanished in an instant.
“For one, you must give your beleaguered father some sense of what you’d like for a gift,” he said.
“Oh!” Caoinlin bounced. “Father, I know what I want, exactly.”
“And what is that?”
“Yes, Father, a real sword and permission to learn.”
Ruairi could not look at his wife and his wife did not try to look at him. Caoinlin, at times boorish in her headlong rush toward a future she could not possibly attain, was perceptive of her father’s sudden change in mood. She took a step back and straightened her spine.
“You do not wish me to have a sword, Father?”
“No, I do not,” he said.
Caoinlin looked to her mother for support, but Saorla held a staunch, unreadable face.
“It is the only thing I ask for, Father.”
“A sword is weapon for knights and warriors. It is dangerous and not a plaything.”
“I don’t want it for a plaything,” Caoinlin said. “I want to learn to fight. Would you then at least consider giving me a baton and assign a master to train me? I will gladly take a wooden sword if only you would allow me to learn.”
Ruairi felt his neck tighten and his face heat. His physicians warned him against allowing his temper to flare, but there were times in which he simply could not contain it.
“That would not be appropriate,” he told his daughter evenly, despite her defiant posture and tone.
“Not appropriate for whom?” Caoinlin, who had no such warnings about her quick to flare temper from the physicians, though quite a few from various governesses and clergy, turned rigid as a cliffside.
“Your tone is insubordinate,” Ruairi said, “and I will not brook it. Do you understand?”
Caoinlin’s jaw tightened, her lips pursed.
Ruairi held his daughter’s glowering stare, infuriated that her defiance was so easily brought to the surface and, even more so, by the thought that his mother might have been right about a few things that he had up until now dismissed.
His daughter’s flint eyes were harder than his own and more likely to create a spark than his, and he was frightened for her. How would any man look into those eyes and feel himself her master? What man would wish to marry a woman whose eyes would never turn coquettish and tender to him? Yes, she was beautiful, but it was not the supple beauty of her mother, the delicate features and radiant grace, it was a fierce beauty, like that of a faraway mountain. She had the quality of a natural force that he had no hope of restraining and yet, he knew he must do everything in his power to try, for her sake.
“Go now,” he ordered.
Caoinlin stormed away, evading her mother’s attempt to touch her and slammed the door behind her, something that required her to use both hands and all her backward body weight to accomplish with the heavy, studded door. Saorla sighed in her silent way.
Ruairi took out his paper and prepared to write the response to Aodhan’s offer in his own hand.
“Would it be such a terrible thing—”
“Yes, it would!” Ruairi erupted, but his wife did not flinch. “Have you no thought in your head for what it will be for her if we allow this to continue? What will become of the kingdom?”
Saorla remained stone-faced.
Ruairi dipped his pen into the inkwell.
“One of us needs to think of more than placating her every whim,” he said. “I will accept Aohdan’s proposal.”
Saorla rushed to his side. She knelt beside him, tears in her eyes, gripping his arm. “You would put the entire kingdom at risk of Gaibrial’s attack?”
“We are already at risk,” he said. “If Aohdan falls to Gaibrial’s invasion, what will stop him from trying to push his borders all the way the western shore? Aodhan is right, if we help him push back Gaibrial now, then there will be no need to do so in the future. And if our kingdoms are announced to be united, both in treaty and in marriage, Gaibrial may reconsider his desire for conquest.”
“She is a child and we have not seen Brogan since he was boy. We have no sense of what sort-of man he is, or what kind of ruler he will be,” Saorla said.
“She is but four years younger than you when we were married and Aodhan has been a stalwart friend and the most trustworthy and respectful of rulers. I know we have had our disagreements, but he has been my friend since we were children. His wife is the daughter of your own blood—”
“Of my mother’s cousin, who was always cruel toward my mother—”
“Nonetheless, seeing that the boy is healthy and well-educated and of noble birth,” Ruairi softened his tone, “and since we cannot hope to have any more children, we must ensure the future of our people and that of our daughter as their monarch, even if we must merge with Aodhan’s kingdom.”
“Can you betroth your only daughter to a man we have not met but once when he was little more than a babe? We know nothing of his character—”
“I will extend invitation to Aodhan and his family to attend the harvest festival and the celebration of Caoinlin’s eleventh birthday, and then we can have a look at the boy and make something of his character, but I will make it clear to Aodhan that I have every intention of accepting his offer and joining Caoinlin with Brogan in marriage as soon as she is of age and ability to wed.”
Saorla opened her mouth, but Ruairi covered her hand with his.
“Did it ever occur to you, my beloved, that when we give ourselves opportunity to inspect Brogan’s character that we also give Aodhan chance to scrutinize Caoinlin? And that it maybe she who falls short of expectation and not the other way round?”
Saorla snatched her hand away. “She is not what Aodhan may seek in a woman, but that is only because in her can be found more courage and fortitude than he or any man could hope to possess. And should you find that this inspires a measure of discomfort, it is your own character that falls short and not hers.”
Saorla surged upward and left. He watched her go, wishing he could take back his words, but finding no way to do so. How else could he secure the kingdom if not marrying his daughter to a trusted ally? It needed to be done for the people as much for his daughter. Not doing so would be viewed as invitation to invasion. Perhaps his wife had imagined that their daughter would enjoy a heart-match, the way they did. But they both knew such marriages were rare, especially amongst the nobility. He didn’t like having to rush, but Gabrial was too great a threat to ignore. And the longer they put this off, the harder it would be to find a noble of good family for Caoinlin and the people. Character was but one factor. His army and his wealth had to be given equal if not greater consideration. These were not happy calculations, but necessary ones. A noble’s life did not come with such comforts and privileges without any sacrifice. Marriage to an ally was, very often, the first and dearest sacrifice. His wife knew this, as well as she, even if she, like Caoinlin, chose defiance.
With a heavy sigh, Ruairi set his pen to paper and wrote to King Aodhan, promising to send troops and accepting his proposition to wed his first son and heir, to Ruairi’s only child.